Marco Benevento has always been something of a groove merchant at heart.
Whether establishing himself as half of the jam-savvy Benevento-Russo Duo, contributing to the more jazz/funk-driven Garage A Trois or collaborating with such established instrumental thrillseekers as Billy Martin, George Porter and Charlie Hunter, the New Jersey-born keyboardist has found exhilarating sounds in the kind of improvising that incites groove.
With that in mind, longstanding fans might initially wonder what the deal is with Benevento's new album, Tigerface. The rhythms are sleeker, the melodies are lusher and the keyboard colors pan out to create a dance sound that borders on electronica. It's as if one of today's great avant-groove experts had just gone pop.
"The original plan was to do the kinds of tunes I could stretch out on," said Benevento, who performs Thursday at Cosmic Charlie's in Lexington. "So we figured out the spots where improvising is okay and where stretching would work sonically. But I'm a big fan of keeping things tight, as well, and making the improvisations melodic and very listenable. So there are songs that lend themselves a lot better to stretching and some songs where that's a terrible idea because you just want to get the song across. Those songs don't really need a ripping piano solo because I'm just getting a point across to the people. But, yeah, it is a balance of both songwriting and improvising. I try to portray to the audience everything I can do."
An additional device underscores the concise nature of Benevento's newest songwriting adventures on Tigerface's introductory tunes, Limbs of a Pine and This is How It Goes: vocals. They aren't Benevento's. The dance chant of the former tune and the calming wail of the latter belong to Kalmia Traver, who also supplies flute and saxophone. Curiously, Tigerface then reverts back to the spacious, daring instrumental grooves the keyboardist has long been known for.
"I tried the vocal tunes out," Benevento said. "I tried to just throw them on the record. But every time I did and then listened to see if the song order was right, I just couldn't find the place for them. Putting them right at the beginning, that worked the best for me.
"But I was also thinking, 'Well, I'm going to have people that put on the record and maybe only listen to the first two tunes. So I'm going to put my most accessible, most listenable, most melodic, most different songs on there first just to catch people's attention.' I wanted it to be like, 'Look, this is something new that I'm into right now. You'll probably be familiar with the rest of the record. But please check this other stuff out.' That's kind of what I was going for. Every time I played those songs for people, their eyes lit up way more than when they heard the other ones. I really felt like I was grabbing people's attention right from the beginning."
As a whole, Tigerface represents the biggest leap from the Benevento-Russo Duo, which cut four records in a five-year span beginning in 2002 and amassed a substantial fanbase among jam band audiences. The accessibility of the keyboardist's newer music isn't the only switch. At the heart of the Duo was the Hammond organ. The focal point of Tigerface is piano. Though processed and manipulated by various effects, loops and electronic treatments, the instrument in the limelight is very much the piano.
"Joe (Russo) and I grew to appreciate a lot of different kinds of music together — lots of new rock music and all purpose stuff. And we learned how to put on a show and what music, exactly, we want to put across to people. We started out as a very exploratory drum and organ duo. There was a lot of improvisation, a lot of chops and a lot of solos. We kind of morphed from like 80 percent soloing and improv and 20 percent song-ish material to the reverse. We liked soloing. But we liked to write music with melodies and chord progressions and catchy hooks just as much, if not a little bit more. That alone was just a great realization in those early years.
"Then the Duo started to fizzle out a little bit. I was just missing the piano. Even though I was playing Hammond organ and Wurlitzer (electric piano), I still wasn't playing acoustic piano ... you know, hammers and hitting strings. That's my real instrument.
"The duo was definitely the starting place, even as far as touring goes and building a bit of a fanbase. Now I have a trio (with bassist Dave Breiwitz and drummer Andy Borger) that has taken over and our crowds have been growing tremendously. It's been really nice to see the consistency that has developed with my own band and my own songwriting. It really feels like people are catching on a little bit."
IF YOU GO
Marco Benevento Trio
When: 10 p.m. April 4
Where: Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave.
Tickets: $10 advance, $12 day of show. Available at Cosmic-charlies.com.