They face each other as if preparing to do battle, keyboards to the left, drums to the right, instruments commanded by two very distinct personalities. Marco Benevento is messy-haired and wild with energy, clever fingers dancing across a playground of ivories and knobs and buttons, feet tapping row upon row of pedals to alter and distort the music he creates. Joe Russo takes charge behind a drum kit, working in beats and fills and samples with various digital accoutrements, arms flailing, striking cymbals and snares and pads and toms, bass drum thundering with purpose.
The music is much larger and louder than you'd expect from just two men. It's an odyssey of thrashing, jazz-inspired instrumentals peppered with electronic interludes, built around grooves that are sometimes moody and reflective, other times unabashedly euphoric. It's a sound that the Benevento/Russo Duo has dubbed, somewhat prosaically, "instrumental jazz rock" and, when they're feeling poetic, "instrumental love rock." Along with traditional keyboard work, Benvento uses his instrument to create bass and guitar riffs, and to interpret vocals when the need arises, like when they perform re-arranged covers by artists like Radiohead, Elliott Smith or Led Zeppelin.
There are moments on stage when their eyes lock in silent communication, the kind of shared understanding that comes only after many years of friendship paired with collaboration and an earnest respect for what the other is capable of doing.
"Joe and I have a pretty serious kind of mind-reading thing going on," says Benevento via phone.
And it's no wonder. When the two members of the Benevento/Russo Duo were kids growing up together in northern New Jersey, they shared an unrelenting musical obsession and played whenever possible, be it with the school jazz ensemble or their own garage rock band. They ran with different crowds in high school, and went their separate ways after graduating in the mid-1990s. Benevento attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and played with a student group, the Jazz Farmers; Russo journeyed west to Colorado, drumming for the innovative electronica/jazz fusion outfit Fat Mama.
Both were eventually drawn to the opportunities offered by the Big Apple — Benevento on his own, Russo with Fat Mama (which disbanded in 2001). Around the same time, the two ran into each other at the Lansky Lounge in Manhattan, where Russo happened to be sitting in with some friends of Benevento's from Berklee. They made the casual decision to play together and, soon after, were appearing with a percussionist and sax player for a weekly gig at a Moroccan restaurant, sessions that encouraged them to pursue other projects as a duo, including a short set of Madonna songs at a birthday bash held in her honor. Then, after several more appearances as a tandem, Benevento and Russo were hired to play a weekly gig for a small crowd of regulars at the Knitting Factory's Tap Bar.
"We were doing a lot of improv, getting to know each other's style and generally just having a lot of fun," Benevento says of their residency, which comprised meandering sets of improvised jazz, jazz-rock originals and a smattering of re-arranged covers.
Word spread, and in 2002 tapers began showing up to record these shows; a reporter from JamBase wrote them up, exposing them to a whole new (and very appreciative) audience; and other musicians materialized to sit in.
After getting a gig at the High Sierra Music Festival in California, the pair resolved to play as the Duo on a full-time basis and booked a cross-country tour. They opened for names like The Wailers, Galactic and Charlie Hunter, joined DJ Logic for some much-talked about late-night sets in New York, released a live CD, Darts, toured some more, and continued to generate a positive buzz on both the jazz and jam-band circuits.
In the summer of 2004, the twosome played a benefit with ex-Phish bassist Mike Gordon, a fiery, funky collaboration that led the newly-formed trio to play several more dates, including a sold-out New Year's Eve show in New York City, and a string of dates in 2005. Throughout, Benevento and Russo continued performing as a duo. Upon returning from a short promotional tour in Japan with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they launched their first studio album, the acclaimed electronic jazz-rock opus, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope). They've been touring in support of it ever since, a rigorous schedule that Benevento admits he enjoys despite the fact that it both helps and hinders the band's creativity.
"We're playing every night and we're discovering all these new sounds, the kind that you can't really create just trying to write music," he says. Further, he enjoys the tension, the almost physical itch of not writing, then returning home full of ideas and letting them pour out. "You've been traveling so long that everything comes out a lot quicker," he says.
Of course, some ideas are lost on the road. But trying out a new number on stage is, as Benevento asserts, "the ultimate test of the longevity of a tune. Even with the tunes we always play, as much as they're in an arranged setting, we have a chance to have fun, explore and become really comfortable so we're able to improvise better."
Regarding their various influences, Benevento is quick to point out that it's not only legends that inspire the band's creativity, but peers as well: "Anyone we play with influences what we do. Mike Gordon, [the members of] Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey — [Joe and I] even influence each other. It's not just about music we've grown up listening to but music we surround ourselves with."
On the future of the Duo, Benevento is unreservedly optimistic. "Being in this band is so much fun," he says. "We both get to play our asses off every night, we both get to express ourselves musically, totally from the heart, every night. We're not hating life, just getting the paycheck. We're getting paid to create art, to paint a musical picture of what's going on in our lives. And it feels really good."