CARBONDALE - In 2005 Tom Stephenson, a Chicago musician and electronics tinkerer who specializes in experimental sounds, gave Marco Benevento a duffel bag. Inside were a bunch of toys. Or more precisely, circuit-bent toys: "Little cocktail toys, battery-operated," Benevento said. Benevento, who trained as a pianist at Boston's Berklee School of Music and went through a phase were he was deeply into the Hammond B-3 organ, took the toys and made music out of them.
"I was so inspired by these little sound machines, I bought a bunch of them," he said. "A lot of the sounds on my records came from these little kids' toys."
Thus confirming the idea that Benevento is a musician who will take sonic ideas from any and every corner. Among the influences he mentions are instructors from his years at Berklee (Joanne Brackeen, most prominently); jazz legends (Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson); people he has collaborated with (drummers Joe Russo, with whom he formed the unusual keyboard-and-drum combo the Benevento/Russo Duo, and Matt Chamberlain); classic rock bands (the Who, Cream) and modern electronic-leaning groups (Chromeo, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem); classical composers (Debussy, Ravel and Brahms) and a set of classical pieces (Bach's keyboard Inventions); a recording studio in Brooklyn, called Trout.
"It's from everywhere, absolutely. It's from friends, music," Benevento said about his influences. "It's all the music you listen to, all the people you meet."
Among the recent inputs is one that seems to have sprung from Benevento's own head. His most recent album, "Tiger Face," released in September, features vocals on several tracks. For Benevento, who, dating back to 2002, has released five albums under his name and several others with the Benevento/Russo Duo and Garage a Trois, this is the first time he has included singing on his recordings.
"I was hearing syllables in my head, to a piano part I was writing," said Benevento, a high-energy, upbeat 35-year-old, from his home in Saugerties, in upstate New York. Benevento has a long, warm association with vocal music, going back to his childhood in the northern New Jersey suburbs, when his father, an immigrant from Italy, sang Italian songs around the house. But putting vocals into his music has been only a half-formed idea.
"I've been hearing oohs and aahs and ees basically my whole life," he said. "But this time I took it to action. I was hearing it, and wondering what a song would sound like if we did it, wondering how it would come out."
To find out, Benevento brought in Klamia Traver, singer of the Brooklyn indie-dance group Rubblebucket. Benevento was pleased with the results. "I was jumping up and down in my studio, saying, 'Woo-hoo!'" he recalled. The two tracks - "Limbs of a Pine," a pounding, swirling piece of electro-funk, and the spacier "This Is How It Goes" - were good enough that Benevento decided to make them the two opening tunes on "Tiger Face."
The singing on "Tiger Face" doesn't end with Traver. Benevento adds his own voice to a chorus on "Limbs of a Pine" and "This Is How It Goes" and a third track, "Eagle Rock." It is the first time he has sung on a record, but it seems that Benevento was just loosening up his pipes. Recently, he was part of a group that did a re-creation of the Band's the Last Waltz, and the object seems to have been to copy the original as closely as possible: Like the Last Waltz, Benevento's show was played in San Francisco, on Thanksgiving. And Benevento, playing the role of keyboardist Dr. John, had to sing "Such a Night." He survived with his courage intact; last week, Benevento sang a version of "Are You Sleeping?" for a Harry Nilsson tribute album.
"But I do a lot of singing in my head," said Benevento, who plays a trio show, with bassist Dave Dreiwitz, of Ween, and drummer Andy Borger, who has played with Norah Jones and Tom Waits. "When I'm writing to get melodies, chord progressions, that comes out of my voice."
The primary reason Benevento hasn't focused much on his voice is that he has been occupied with putting his fingers to various keyboards - organs, acoustic pianos, toy pianos, electronic gizmos, mellotron and the like. (The credits on "Tiger Face" list 13 instruments that Benevento played, including the Baldwin FunMachine, a Clavioline, and a EMS VCS3.) He began with classical lessons at 7, and family sessions around the piano, to sing Beatles songs.
Benevento says he liked the classical piano lessons "for a little while" before he got into rock. At 15 he started his first band, playing covers of the Doors and the Who on organ and synthesizer for Sweet 16 parties at VFW halls. Also during his middle-school years, he played a few times with Joe Russo, a drummer who lived in the same town, Franklin Lakes, but attended a different school.
At Berklee, Benevento's interests exploded in multiple directions at once. He got into Debussy and Ravel, both composers from late-19th century France; pianist Brad Mehldau introduced him to Brahms. He got into the Hammond organ, and focused on that for several years. Joanne Brackeen, a Berklee teacher, guided him toward jazz improvisation.
"She whipped me into shape," Benevento said. "I could read, but she pushed me to the next level, got me doing things I didn't think I could do, really difficult solos that I thought were unattainable."
Coming out of school, Benevento started a reasonably traditional jazz trio. But settling in New York's progressive downtown scene tore up that plan. "I took a 180, crossed jazz with rock, and there I am, doing this mix that I do," he said. "I don't know if it happened accidentally or intentionally, but I strayed from the traditional jazz trio right away, as soon as I went to New York. All the people I was playing with were modern, experimental."
In 2002, his old friend Russo got a $100 a night gig Thursday nights at the Knitting Factory, in downtown Manhattan. Russo figured if he could play a duo rather than a trio, it would mean more money, and he invited Benevento to join him.
"We didn't have anything, any ideas," Benevento said. "But that seemed like my grocery money for a week."
After playing awhile, Benevento and Russo saw that a keyboard-drum duo, done with enough imagination, was musically viable. "We loved the challenge of it," Benevento said, "and just added more gear: a Wurlitzer, some circuit-bent toys. He added a drum pad and even got a keyboard for a while. We liked the limitations of it, liked figuring out how to write in that format."
Then Benevento started feeling a different kind of itch. "I just knew I wanted to get on the road. So I booked a tour out to California," he said. The Benevento/Russo Duo, built on improvisation, found itself in the jam-band world. They played at the big rock festivals and in 2006, the two joined forces with guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon, both from Phish, for a tour.
Several years ago, the Duo, as it was often known, faded away, after heavy touring and five albums. The two remain associated; Russo was part of the Last Waltz date in November. Off on his own Benevento has been remarkably prolific. His solo debut, from 2007, was a three-disc set, "Live at Tonic," recorded at a small New York club with numerous guests, including Gordon and Russo. It featured multiple sides of the keyboardist, as Benevento played tunes by Thelonious Monk and Benny Goodman, covered Pink Floyd's "Fearless" and Steve Winwood's "Gimme Some Lovin'," slammed through rock and showed off jazz chops.
Since then, Benevento has moved a bit toward the electronic and pop ends of the jazz spectrum, with the albums "Me Not Me" and "Between the Needles and Nightfall." He also plays in the hard-edged avant-jazz combo Garage a Trois; in the Led Zeppelin cover band Bustle in Your Hedgerow, in which Benevento covers Robert Plant's vocal lines on keyboards; and in Surprise Me Mr. Davis. "That's my traditional rock outfit right there, very Stonesesque, AC/DC-like sound," he said.
Right about now, Benevento is thinking about the next new horizon, of singing. "It's new territory, which is why it's attractive," he said. "It's become an option. People have said they want me to have more vocal tracks. Some people have said they want me to do more singing, in my own voice. I'm 1-A up for it. But I can't purposely do that - I can't force myself to write singing parts for myself."
If he does decide to pursue singing, fans can expect him to do it with exuberance. A Benevento trademark is a big, easy grin onstage; there are few players who express the joy of music so directly.
"When you finally get to the gig and start playing, it's the best thing ever," he explained. "There are so many things you have to get through to do the gig. It's cool seeing how my own music writing can be entertaining to people for two hours."