Marco Benevento Toys Around With Experimental Jazz The pianist and composer blends electronic music with traditional jazz. On his new record, Between the Needles and Nightfall, he borrows sounds from an assortment of toy instruments, including old Casio keyboards and other trinkets.
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Marco Benevento Toys Around With Experimental Jazz

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Marco Benevento Toys Around With Experimental Jazz

Marco Benevento Toys Around With Experimental Jazz

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(Soundbite of song "Greenpoint")

GUY RAZ, host:

The northernmost neighborhood of Brooklyn is called Greenpoint. Its western edge sits right along the East River. And it's from that spot where you can see the glory and majesty of Manhattan's skyline. Greenpoint is also the name of the song that we're hearing, and it's where the experimental jazz electronic pianist Marco Benevento shaped the sound.

(Soundbite of song "Greenpoint")

RAZ: This is the opening track to his new record. It's called "Between the Needles and Nightfall." Marco Benevento is in our New York studio.


Mr. MARCO BENEVENTO (Musician): Hello.

RAZ: This track includes a technique you're well-known for among experimental jazz pianists, and it's called circuit bending. Can you describe what that is, and where do we hear it in this recording?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Right at the beginning there. And it's acting as that electronic sort of drum pattern in the background. Circuit bending is when you take a battery-operated toy, say like a Casio keyboard or like a Texas Instruments, sort of Speak & Spell or Speak & Read, right? You take the back off and you'll see, you know, the sort of motherboard.

You would see a wire, and you sort of intercept that wire and put a toggle switch or a knob, and you essentially bend the circuit with your new interception.

Unfortunately, I don't do the circuit bending myself. My friend in Chicago, he does a lot of circuit bending.

RAZ: And he sort of sends you the components?

Mr. BENEVENTO: He does. Yeah, I actually just got two gigantic cardboard boxes filled with bubble-wrapped, circuit-bent toys of all different shapes and sizes and...

RAZ: What kind of toys?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Keyboards, weird, Islamic prayer boxes, Chinese prayer boxes, you know, strange things that are - anything battery-operated that makes sounds, something that comes out of that little speakers right there.

RAZ: And as we'll hear in a moment, sounds that you integrate into your music. But before we get there, I want to ask you about your career, your early days.

I know you studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was curious how you got into sort of melding electronic music, you know, sort of really ambient dance music, with jazz.

Mr. BENEVENTO: I think the marriage between those lo-fi sounds and the acoustic piano is what really drew me in. Those circuit-bent sounds were sort of acting as this David Lynch-esque, crazy soundscape pad, sort of underneath the, you know, piano, bass and drum, almost in a jazz tradition, and the sounds from the toys themselves are just so - almost, like, edible. You know, they're like ear candy.

RAZ: I want to hear some of those interesting sounds you use and the devices that you use to make them, things like I guess old Nintendo systems and the ColecoVision...

Mr. BENEVENTO: Yeah. Right.

RAZ: game consoles and the like. You can hear some of those sounds pretty clearly right in the middle of this track called "Risd."

(Soundbite of song, "Risd")

RAZ: It's called "Risd." I gather that's for the Rhode Island School of Design.

Mr. BENEVENTO: Yeah. I played a gig there two years ago with my band, and we improvised this song, "Risd," at RISD during sound check. I don't know how it happened. It really was like a happy accident. We just opened up with it in our show, a beautiful space, and all these art students were dancing around. It was like this new, amazing moment for me where it was, like, all right, just dance music. Like, you know, hey, get up. Let's bring this element back into this sort of jazz scene and sort of crossing with rock, as well.

RAZ: There's the blending of styles and genres, that kind of taking the jazz, mixing it with, whether it's rock or dance music or electronic music. I think it's most pronounced, in a way, on your new record in the track "Ila Frost."

(Soundbite of song, "Ila Frost")

RAZ: This is a really lovely recording. And you describe it in the liner notes as a sentimental song but no elaboration. Why sentimental?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BENEVENTO: Well, "Ila Frost" is the name of my second child. And "Between the Needles and Nightfall," actually, the title comes from the story of her birth. Our midwife came over to our house, we had her at home, and we had to get acupuncture for my wife to go into labor. And the acupuncture happened around 6 o'clock, and our midwife said: Well, hopefully we'll have our - your baby between the needles and nightfall.

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. BENEVENTO: And at 7:45, we had our baby, right before nightfall. And it was just sort of a poetic moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Ila Frost")

RAZ: I'm speaking with electronic jazz pianist Marco Benevento. His new record is called "Between the Needles and Nightfall."

Most of the people that we end up interviewing on this program, most of the musicians, write music with lyrics, and obviously, you don't. I'm interested to sort of know how you get inspiration for the tone of the piece. I mean, if you can describe one piece as sentimental and one piece as angry and one piece as a reminder of something...


RAZ:'s easier to get that sense through lyrics, right?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Uh-huh. Yeah.

RAZ: But when it's just music, how do you capture those things?

Mr. BENEVENTO: I've been thinking more of myself as like trying to be a professional capturist because music moves so fast, and the idea and that creative light, sort of - is such a fast-paced sort of channel that you really just - when you're in that moment, in that now moment, and you just start playing what you're feeling at that moment, and if you were able to tape it or remember to press record during that moment where you don't want to think about anything else besides you and your fingers on your instrument, it's more of the focus for me is capturing that mood somehow. It's like a vibe that you're capturing more than a song.

RAZ: I know that you've covered some pretty well-known artists in the past like "My Morning Jacket." And you have an homage to Amy Winehouse on this record. You do a version of her song, "You Know I'm No Good," which I actually want to play for a moment, and then we'll hear your version.

(Soundbite of song, "You Know I'm No Good")

Ms. AMY WINEHOUSE (Singer): (Singing) I cheated myself like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble.

(Soundbite of song, "You Know I'm No Good")

RAZ: And your version has this kind of warehouse kind of jam session sound about it. Why did you cover this song by Amy Winehouse?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Just listening to it, right when you just played it, I knew why I covered it. It's just such a great song, and it's so well-recorded that it's so captivating to me. From start to finish, her voice, her inflections in her voice and playing it in this trio setting is really a nice change in the night, and when you're performing live, especially.

And I recorded this tune on an old 1927 Wurlitzer upright piano...

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Mr. BENEVENTO: ...that has red keys on it, and it's only 61 notes. So if you could imagine an upright piano with one octave chopped off the top end and one octave chopped off the bottom, so it's just sort of the middle of the piano, and we had it in the studio, and we recorded it on that. And now I tour with it.

RAZ: Marco, I know it may not have a whole lot to do with the conscious sound of your music, but I understand that your dad is Italian from Italy, born in Italy. Is that right?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: And that you guys have a kind of an obligatory family dinner together each Sunday night in New Jersey. Is that right?

Mr. BENEVENTO: Oh, yeah. The information is leaking. I hope the recipe doesn't leak because it's a pretty good sauce recipe. Yeah, I've been going to Wyckoff, New Jersey every Sunday at 1 o'clock for a big pasta meal with my family. You know, I've been doing it all my life. And it's sort of a reset button for me, you know, going through the whole week and then going out to New Jersey on Sunday.

Sitting down at the table and doing that with your family is important to me, and - I mean, I guess I didn't realize the significance of it until over the last, you know, 10 or 15 years. But as a kid, you know, you just go and have pasta at Nona's(ph) house, and then you go run around, you know, just really fun.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's composer and pianist Marco Benevento. His new album is called "Between the Needles and Nightfall." He joined me from our studios in New York.

Marco, thanks so much.

Mr. BENEVENTO: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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