Combining pop and jazz can certainly be a dubious enterprise. Err too much on the side of pop and you’re left with the cabaret stylings of Tom Jones. Focus too much on the jazz and you might find yourself inhabiting the dreaded “smooth jazz” section in your local record store — er, MP3 Web site, that is. Either way, when you sandwich pop and jazz, you risk losing the meat and the mustard — artistic integrity and the respect of musicians and fans in both genres.
Of course, there’s much to be gained if the enterprise goes well. Take, for instance, keyboardist Marco Benevento. His 2008 release, Invisible Baby, a delightful salad of pastoral pop, video game music, and jamminess, all on a bed of crisp bop, was, by all accounts, a critical success, garnering nearly as much attention from the pop world as the jazz realm. It comes as no surprise, then, that Benevento’s latest release, Me Not Me, takes his love of pop one step further: The album is composed almost entirely of jazzed-out interpretations of some of Benevento’s favorite pop songs. And while it’s not as immediate or compelling as Invisible Baby, Me Not Me is a wholly enjoyable album, filled with creative interpretations of some great compositions, and should serve as an excellent jazz gateway drug to fans of indie pop.
On album opener “Golden”, Benevento leaves no doubt that he’s got his sights set on the indie rock community. The song, a composition by indie rock darlings My Morning Jacket, is as playful as anything Benevento has recorded. Though Me Not Me is billed as a jazz album, what makes it such a great pop album is that Benevento never emphasizes the individual parts over the sum of those parts. Specifically, he never overplays his keyboard to the detriment of the song as a whole, and “Golden” exemplifies this approach. The tune contains only a minimal amount of keyboard work — just enough to intuit the melody. The real emphasis here is on Matt Chamberlain’s churning, electro-pop drums and the generous use of reverb and fuzz. It is these pieces, and not complex piano harmonies or extended keyboard solo passages, that lend the song an AM radio vibe and make it so infectious.
“Heartbeats” is another example of Benevento’s less-is-more keyboard approach. Of all the covers on Me Not Me, the song, originally by electro-pop group the Knife, stays truest to its originator. Like the Knife’s version, Benevento’s interpretation features excellent piano work that gives the song an organic quality lacking in the original, anchored by electronic bleeps, blips, and pulses.
For the most part, though, Benevento has taken the covers on Me Not Me and clearly made them his own. On “Twin Killer”, the Berklee grad has turned a Deerhoof song into a New Orleans swamp romp. With pounding keyboard work reminiscient of Dr. John, the song swings along, excitingly edging closer and closer into atonalism but never quite getting there. Benevento has never been one to shy away from effects pedals and musical doohickies, but on Me Not Me he threatens to go postal — in a good way. Alongside his usual Hammond B-3 organ and Wurlitzer, Benevento makes extensive use of old school toys, including a Farfisa electronic organ, an Optigan keyboard, a Mellotron synthesizer, and a tack piano.
Perhaps the most startling interpretation on Me Not Me is Benevento’s cover of Beck’s “Sing It Again”. The original song is an alt-country gem, complete with steel guitar, two-stepping drums, and Beck’s drunken singalong vocals. Benevento’s version, with only piano and bass, reveals a tenderness and melancholy not overt in the original version. It’s quite touching.
Though Me Not Me, as the Seinfeld-esque title suggests, focuses on meaningful songs (for Benevento) by other artists, it also contains a few compelling Benevento originals. The highlight is “Mephisto”. The song, which reveals Benevento’s inner Randy Newman, is anchored by a New Orleans ragtime shuffle and bluesy solo lines, and is as close to traditional jazz as Benevento gets on Me Not Me.
Over the course of a half dozen albums, Marco Benevento has shown himself to be not only a creative and gifted keyboardist, but one of the few artists deeply rooted in the jazz tradition who can reveal his pop sensibilities without looking over his shoulder.