ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - This is a town built on chance, and that suits Marco Benevento and Joe Russo just fine.
"The definition of us has been accidental everything," Benevento says. "Even being a band, being a Duo. We got offered a gig together, we took it. That's kind of how everything happens for us, and we like it that way."
"Best Reason to Buy the Sun," the album the Benevento/Russo Duo released this year to wide critical acclaim, is no less unpredictable, encasing the pair's kaleidoscopic wall of sound in a collection of partially congealed pop forms.
"It was really gratifying because most of our early shows are based entirely off improvisation," Benevento says. "You sit down and write some material, and then you spend about a year with those songs on the road, and they naturally create themselves, so we were really prepared to go in the studio. It's super rewarding to come out with an album that's almost like a pop-instrumental-rock album, and more importantly, to feel as though we've found a niche that works for us somewhere in between. It becomes a collection of these great accidents, you know?"
A conservatory-bred jazz keyboardist, "great accident" is one of Marco Benevento's favorite expressions. Russo, a hypertalented rock drummer, enjoys it as well.
It was, for example, a great accident when the two found themselves cruising around the island of Manhattan on a boat cruise playing only Led Zeppelin covers as a birthday gift to a friend, and an even giddier one when they followed up a recent gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom by popping into a small East Village bar wearing only boxer shorts and club shirts to play a strict menu of '80s hair-metal classics with Russo on standup bass and Benevento on acoustic guitar.
They called themselves "Come On Falcon." No immediate releases are expected.
"We listen to a lot of Bon Jovi," Russo says, standing in a backstage hallway of The House of Blues in Atlantic City, sipping iceless Maker's Mark out of a large red Dixie cup. "No seriously, we were just listening to Slippery When Wet on the Bus."
Although Marco Benevento and Joe Russo have known each other since middle school in New Jersey, both claim it was largely accidental that the two would take up a weekly residency together at the Knitting Factory. It was, they say, largely an accident that "transcendent" moments began to happen frequently enough to warrant the formation of a full-time band. Later, it was a great accident when, for a few months, ex-Phish bassist Mike Gordon freed Benevento's left hand from bass duty by weaving his conversational low-end bombs into the Duo's lush soundscapes, as it was when the Trio's set consisted solely of a 52-minute take on Phish's "Foam" that helped solidify their popularity within the ill-defined universe of jam.
The Duo has made a fledging career out of great accidents. The Atlantic City gig opening for Government Mule, however, is a planned affair.
About eight, the pair takes the stage and launches into "Becky," the trash-can cadences of the tune's drum loop exploding into the overdriven sneer of Benevento's organ. The music moves into crazy places, veering violently from form to scrambled jazz interludes, largely hanging in limbo between the two extremes.
"I'd like to introduce the band," Benevento says onstage. It's funny to hear him say the word. The introduction is brief, as expected, and underscored with the sarcasm and deviance characteristic of twentysomething musicians coming to terms with fledgling success. The Duo, after all, are big on self-parody. Russo has referred to himself as the metrosexual metronome. The two, ostensibly heterosexual, once suggested a Relix magazine cover featuring the two of them in bed, shirtless, with the HEAD: The Duo Comes Out. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Like most artists of his generation, Russo's standard mode of expression is irony.
But he's in love with his drums. They fight like a dysfunctional couple - violent tirades replete with the requisite tearful confessions, beaten backs and broken dishware collapsing into post-coital lulls. Above this soap opera, Benevento's keys are in a constant state of sonic mutation, shape-shifting into overdriven guitar, delicate cabaret piano and crackling ambience. Throughout the night, the music moves in these alternating tides - like luck - pushing and pulling against itself.
"Our whole dynamic is kind of based around that push and pull," Russo says. "Marco is a very skilled jazz musician and I'm rock oriented. When we first started out, that's the way it was, he was very jazz, and I was very rock, and I think that's what has made the sound and the album special. But we've evolved to retain both of those features within ourselves as a result of playing together."
"Best Reason to Buy the Sun" finds the two friends joining an increasing throng of improvisational musicians - including nu-jazz lions Medeski Martin and Wood, the improvisational gurus to whom the Duo is frequently compared - and suspiciously reapproaching the pop form as a useful device, poking and prodding at it like a strange gelatinous mass.
Given the speed at which pop culture moves forward, sometimes the things we're running away from wind up being the things we're running toward. Things like "pop music," whatever that means. After all, in the jazz community, rebellion and change not merely being hallmarks but the propelling ethic, all ideologies, even anti-pop ideologies, demand to be rebelled against eventually. Against odds, it's the pop elements of "Best Reason to Buy the Sun" - as well as the Duo's groove orientation and keen melodic sensibilities - that make it compelling.
We Americans like change, but we also like instant gratification, and when the two can meet, well, that's a pretty great accident.