Marco Benevento’s vision quest

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Benevento has a passion for collecting, fixing and re-purposing old pianos.
Michael DiDonna

Marco Benevento lives in Woodstock, New York, with his wife and kids, some farm animals, and Fred Short.

Well, to be precise, Fred isn’t exactly living there anymore. In a semi-rural area whose very name bears the weight of a cultural milestone and has been the mailing addresses of artists and musicians for decades, Fred Short was actually a local legend. A Native American originally from California, a shaman it is said, Short settled in the Woodstock area in the middle of the last century and worked the land there, bringing with him his customs and religious ceremonies, unleashing a bit of pre-Columbian mysticism on the suspenders-and-pickups community.

Benevento’s studio sits on a portion of what was once Short’s land. He tells us — and it’s not really a feel-a-presence type thing — that the whole legend of Fred Short, had been chewing at him ever since he moved there. Don’t bother looking on the interwebs about Fred; there isn’t really anything out there about him

“Yeah,” Benevento says, “I couldn’t really find out anything about him either, so I just started talking to my neighbors and the locals around here.

“Actually, I collect pianos. Even if they’re clunkers or free pianos, I’ll just go out to Craigslist and look for them. I went to go get one from this older guy, and he asked me where I lived. I said I was on Fred Short Way, and he said that the piano I was getting from him was actually in Fred’s family … his sister owned it, or something.

“Fred played all sorts of instruments. … He used to have like Ayahuasca ceremonies on his properties, shamanistic vision quests. That kind of thing.”

A man left alone in his studio in front of a keyboard can sometimes produce remarkable things. And Benevento’s curiosity about Fred Short eventually resulted in a late-night, leave-the-tape rolling stream of consciousness solo jam that was, in part, a kind of prayer to the late Woodstock legend.

“I’ve been living on this road for a while, and it just has a funny ring to it,” he says. “And I always wondered what the hell was going on with that, so I just decided to sort of look into it. And one night, I was just improvising music, a total improvisation… purposely not stopping for an hour and a half. And afterward, I thought, what if I just make this The Story of Fred Short? I lived on the road named after him, I had a piano that belonged to his family, and the whole thing had just been on my mind anyway.

“I told my drummer about it, and he got real excited by the idea. He was saying, ‘You gotta do it. Put it all together and polish it and rehearse it and do it.’ It took about a year and a half, but we got it done.”

The result, Benevento’s sixth solo album (of which the second half is comprised of the Fred Short suite), is a swirling pastiche of reedy keyboard pads sailing over deep grooves, buoyant pop filigrees and grinding old-school psychedelic reveries. Alternatively haunting and spacious, humble and plaintiff, Benevento laughs a little when we suggest that the thing is a kind of post-millennial prog goulash.

“Ha! It might sounds like it could be prog, but it’s so far away from any fusion or anything like that,” he says. “I don’t know what the hell it is.”

And up front in the mix are Benevento’s vocals. For a guy long associated with alternative jazz and experimental instrumental music (notably duo work with longtime drummer Joe Russo), Benevento is finding new satisfaction in singing these days.

“I used to sing in high school, in band and choir and stuff like that, and then I went off to college and I got into jazz. And then, during the last three years I’ve been doing projects here and there where people were saying, ‘Hey, you could sing these parts.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well I don’t but I can.’

“What really inspired me to start singing was my collaboration with Kal from Rubblebucket, when I hired her to sing one of my songs from Tiger Face, which was two records before this one. And I heard her sing this song, with my lyrics, and I specifically remember that moment. It made me think, whoa, I need to do more of this. It just made me realize that this was a task I sort of had to task on myself.

“Benevento readily concedes to being a serial foster-parent for orphaned, widowed or otherwise abandoned keyboard instruments, finding, fixing, modding and re-purposing them with a basement-tweaker’s obsessiveness. Vintage or modern, doesn’t matter. He can wax at length about his attempts to tweak his Fender Rhodes to reproduce Chick Corea’s trademark “bite” from the early 1970s, or prowling Craigslist for under-purposed pianos, or finding some dog-eared Roland user’s manual from the Reagan years in an estate sale someplace.

We asked if he’d call it a kind of guilty pleasure.

“No, I’d count it as a tax write-off!” he says with a laugh. “And I’d also count it as something that just makes my brain get bigger, when I get a keyboard that I’ve never played before or never owned before. Some synthesizer that I don’t know how to use, keyboards that can be modified… I mean, it’s just endless. “

OK, so Benevento maintains a small farm at his home. Plays tennis. Collects, restores and mods old keyboards. Composes. Plays gigs. Works on his studio. Raises kids. Just took up guitar and swears he plays an hour a day. (“Another can of worms,” he calls it.)
How does the guy keep from being overwhelmed?

“I consciously work out my schedule with my manager and my wife and two kids. We look at the calendar for the year and figure out, OK, this week we have to hang out with my parents, next week we go to California, then a week to work on my music. And we literally schedule it all out. … Someone will call me up one day and say, ‘Let’s go do this,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I have to play tennis today.’

“It’s fun to just go and max out on something, and then give it a rest and go do something else. I’ll be in the studio recording and just be so into it and lovin’ it, then I think, ‘I need to get the hell out of here.’ So I’ll go out and … trim the goat hooves. Or… clean the chicken coop.

“We have a peacock, so sometimes it’s, ‘OK, time to go hang out with the peacock.’”

On the Bill: Marco Benevento. Friday, March 18, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St, Boulder, 720-645-2467.