I recently had the opportunity to talk with Marco Benevento while he was in Nevada on tour with drummer Joe Russo in support of their new live release Darts. The organ and drums duo have a huge sound; a sound that leaves fans in disbelief that it's only two people. They have a chemistry that can be best summed up as musical telepathy.
Mike McKinley: Let's begin by talking about some of your thoughts on the new live album Darts.
Marco Benevento: We didn't plan on releasing a live album‚ particularly the night we we're playing that gig. The show was taped and it turned out to be really good and the music was really happening that night. The first three tunes we played that night are the first three tracks of Darts. The next two tracks are from the Tap Bar at the Knitting Factory in NYC‚ where a lot of instantaneous music was created‚ so we threw on a jam we made up and a composition we wrote from one of those nights playing there. Then there's a bonus track on there with Brad Barr from The Slip.
MM: I've been hearing those rumors (laughs).
MB: It's the Led Zeppelin tune "What is and what should never be‚" which is a tune we've been playing for awhile‚ and we rehearsed it with Brad earlier that day before the show. It sounded really cool with Brad. I've known Brad really well‚ and we get along really well musically.
MM: So Darts was put together spontaneously from a night that happened to be recorded‚ and the chemistry…
MB: Yeah‚ the chemistry was there that night. Brad opened the night with a solo set‚ and the whole night just had a great vibe to it. Then we were going to the New Orleans Jazz Fest and we didn't have a CD of what we were doing lately‚ you know‚ we have an older album‚ but it doesn't represent what we are doing now. So we decided to just use that show because it sounded great and make the CD. We had it mastered by Alan Evans‚ the drummer from Soulive‚ and he beefed it up for us.
MM: The thing that I found so interesting about seeing the Duo play for the first time is how the two of you were making this huge sound.
MB: Well‚ when we first started doing this duo thing‚ I felt really naked and I felt like I had to do a lot to fill up the space. I guess a big part of it is understanding when and how to use the full head on sound. We did some gigs with Charlie Hunter and he was checking us out and was really supportive of us‚ and he does a duo thing with Adam Cruz as well. He said something like "you guys need to use more ammo‚" and I was like "what is he talking about?" I mean‚ I was thinking our playing is already really aggressive and forceful and loud. But what he meant was that there's much more duo vocabulary we could tap into‚ like you can get quiet and do all different things with dynamics. It could be something like only playing with my right hand while Joe is playing drums or playing with brushes‚ or various different intricate things so that when we do go full on the sound comes across as really big - like there's more than two people playing. So that was cool to hear that - we can really do a lot with just the two of us where I can play 4 to 8 bars and drop out and Joe could do the same‚ and we can trade off. That's part of what you can do to make it sound really big‚ you know? If you use the space wisely then when you bring it in it sounds really‚ really full.
A big part of it is the pedals. I play through a delay pedal‚ a distortion pedal‚ a ring modulator‚ a sampler and also a Line 6 pedal. What's cool with the sampler is that I can put down an out of time layer‚ kind of like this soundscape or this wash of sound‚ and then play over it. That's a big part of making it sound like maybe there are more things going on. But for the most part I don't use the sampler for the bass line‚ which I think a lot of people think I do...
MM: So the bass lines are all in real time?
MB: Yeah‚ they are all in real time played live. If the monitors or the sound in a room isn't that good then I take the risk of Joe not hearing the bass line. I find it kind of artificial to sample a bass line and then solo over it anyway. Sometimes I'll do it‚ but it's rare. The way the organ works‚ when you play your own bass lines‚ it tends to be easier to lock in with your right hand. If I'm playing a bass line with my left hand then normally everything I play with my right hand rhythmically will lock in better than if I was to sample a bass line. In that respect‚ I love playing bass lines and a lot of times I can find 7 or 8 harmonic possibilities while playing a solo. There are endless places to go because I'm playing the bass line and I can just go where I feel it should go instead of waiting for a bass player to choose where to go and pull me there - I can pull myself there. If it's not happening I can go a different way‚ or if it is happening I can stay there. It's really fun‚ you know‚ as opposed to trusting a bass player to read your mind. It's good because I'm comping for myself and that really allows for right hand mind to work really well. For the most part I think the samples are a big part of the sound‚ and of course the way Joe plays the drums he can fill up space great. Joe's the third brain‚ you know‚ I have my right hand and left hand and Joe just locks into all of it. Joe and I have this chemistry - we actually grew up together
MM: Yeah‚ I saw that eighth grade photo of you two on your website.
MB: We went to middle school together and learned our instruments at the same time. I would go over to his house and we would play together in the basement. A lot has changed! (Laughter) We'd play Rush tunes and even back then we'd play Zeppelin tunes. But I think there's a lot of intuitive stuff going on‚ even just traveling together. So there's quite a bit of scary mind reading happening‚ but he brings that out of a lot of people. We know each other so well and that adds so much to the sound. I've played with other drummers in the duo setting and it's been with drummers that I haven't played with a lot‚ and these are great drummers like Adam Deitch‚ Terrion Gully from Christian McBride's band‚ and Andrew Barr from The Slip‚ it's worked really well‚ but since I haven't played with them a lot...I don't know‚ it isn't as explosive. There's definitely been some great interaction‚ but with Joe its total interaction like every second we're feeding off of each other.
MM: That's one of the things that came to mind every time I've seen you play‚ it's like musical telepathy. In the moment you're constantly exchanging ideas and bouncing off of each other. You have you're right hand and left hand providing different textures and Joe is right in tune with all of it - that's chemistry.
MB: Right and it's just the two of us doing it. In a way‚ when there's that little bit of space that happens and you question what you're going to do‚ it feels so naked. When you're playing live for people who are giving their full attention and then there's a split second where nothing is happening its like time warps itself and goes slower (laughs). It's like trying to catch up quick and since it's only the two of us it's easier to hear the silence. But at the same time‚ it's nice to embrace those moments of silence where there's just a bass line and Joe is playing brushes - to really enjoy the naked sound of two people playing.
MM: Do you ever feel limited by that fact that it is just the two of you?
MB: Definitely...well‚ definitely limited in one way. I have bass lines and my right hand is playing a melody or I have half of my right hand playing a melody and the other part trying to fill in a chord on the bottom; traditionally the organ is played with foot pedals where you play the bass line with your feet and you play chords with your left hand and the melody with your right hand. So with Joe‚ I'm missing the big thick comping chord‚ because I'm doing the bass line on one hand and the melody on the other. If we're doing a ballad I'll miss the big harmonic chord‚ like if there was a guitar player he could just strum the chord. The bass line is playing a root and the right hand is playing the one note melody‚ so a big chunk is missing - which is the chord. So the chord comping is missing‚ and I guess that's why the organ trio with a guitar works so well because the guitar or the organ can comp out chords. That's the only thing that I find to be limiting. At home sometimes I'll put on the bass pedals and use them as the bass and comp chords over that and it sounds so good. I just started experimenting with that‚ and I can definitely see that being part of our future. I wish I could bring the bass pedals out on the road with us now. But that's the only thing‚ and actually‚ I feel more free then limited in the Duo.
MM: Well‚ that's what I was thinking because it's just the two of you there's more freedom within the improvisation.
MB: Yeah‚ definitely. Even if we have someone sit in with us it seems more limiting at times. Well...I wouldn't say limiting‚ but you have to get their music and energy into what Joe and I are doing‚ and that only has worked well with a few people. But for the most part the Duo is really a free setting where the music can really take off. Sometimes I feel like Joe pushes it even further‚ like "we did that‚ let's move on" or "don't stay there too long‚" you know‚ like let's keep on moving (laughs). Even in conversation‚ Joe is really good at keeping things moving and as a drummer that's really important to not dwell on stuff so much. I mean it's good to dwell and stay in a groove for awhile‚ but it's also good to know when something's not working and when to move forward.