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Smile like you mean it: Marco Benevento.

PHOTO: Julia Zave

What Boundaries?

By Josh Potter

Marco Benevento Trio

Revolution Hall, Feb. 20

It’s a certain brand of musician who can wander onto a stage as imposing as the one at Revolution Hall totally undetected by his audience, amid the din of house music and without the pomp of blinding spotlights. He’s the kind of person who’s probably more at ease clowning in his parents’ basement with a group of close friends, and so approaches every performance with that same ease and humility. He’s a jazz musician at heart, so there’s no place in his demeanor for rock-posturing, although the language of Radiohead is just as much at his fingers as that of Cecil Taylor. He understands that the best music is born in the moment and, while the position of celestial bodies might not normally influence his playing, he probably knew that last Wednesday’s full lunar eclipse could only help.

Touring in support of his recent solo album Invisible Baby, Marco Benevento, keyboardist for the Benevento-Russo Duo, joined forces with two of the most accomplished musicians in a burgeoning genre of improvisational music, one that is equally ill-defined by the jazz or jam-band monikers. Reed Mathis, better known as the visionary bassist for Oklahoma outfit the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and Andrew Barr, drummer for the Slip, backed Benevento in what was beginning to sound less like a solo offering and more like a collaborative dream team.

Hearkening back to the days of Duke Ellington and Cole Porter, Benevento’s lyrical songwriting dominated. Played on an effects-laden electric piano, and supplemented by an array of circuit-bent toys, tunes like “You Must Be a Lion” gleamed with joy and optimism before, during, and after the band’s harmonic derailment and rhythmic evisceration of the melody. In all likelihood, the quiet crowd was a welcome invitation for the band to take extra liberties with song structure. The post-rock opus “Bus Ride” became all the more climactic from the slow, deliberate tempo at which they took it; the glitchy, math-rock passages of “Atari,” however, percolated thanks to an uncommonly fast clip. While the band drew almost exclusively on Benevento’s compositions, the set also featured other artists’ gems, including Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” My Morning Jacket’s “Golden,” and “Twin Killers” by Deerhoof.

Halfway through the set, it became evident why artists like Benevento are beginning to receive praise from jazz heavyweights like Bill Frisell and Brad Mehldau. Moving from a sludge-metal rendering of “If You Keep on Asking Me” to the saccharine indie-pop of “Real Morning Party,” the trio proved as versatile as any of their bebop or fusion forebears.

By the time the trio finished, the moon had regained its flat white glow, but only after inducing some dark, beastly moments late in the show. With its titular nod to Miranda July’s short film, “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody” launched Benevento to his highest moment of the night. He pushed, stretched and pounded his solos in the noisy, grandiose manner that is becoming synonymous with his name.

Variety Show

Taj Mahal Trio

The Egg, Feb. 23

Why does a black American college kid with eclectic musical leanings name himself after the famous mausoleum in faraway India? Not for any logical reason, that’s for sure—the unusual moniker Taj Mahal came to Harlem-born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in a dream in the early 1960s while he was studying agriculture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Even though Henry/Taj soon gave up his agrarian ambitions and headed westward to gig as a multi-instrumentalist and singer in the Los Angeles club scene, he wound up outstanding in his field anyway, that being a sonic spectrum of virtually every shade of the blues there is. At a packed Egg last Saturday, the 65-year-old two-time Grammy winner showed in one 100-minute set that his chops and, especially, his roof-wrecking vocals are still as strong as at any time in his four-decade career.

Ably backed by Bill Rich on electric bass and Brian T. Parker on drums, Taj varied his show by beginning on acoustic guitar, then progressing through electronic keyboard to acoustic-electric guitar to banjo, before returning to acoustic guitar. He changed up styles along the way, too, offering country-blues fingerpicking, Chicago blues, and jazz-flavored fretwork reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. Although he was proficient in each—no small feat—he was musically a jack of all trades without being a master of any. His singing, though, was a different story: Taj Mahal is a gravel-voiced belter in the Howlin’ Wolf tradition, whose singing can wax gruff then silky by turns, and he can nail high notes with the power of a gospel star.

Taj opened with his 1969 remake of Henry Thomas’s early blues classic, “Fishing Blues,” nimbly fingerpicking his acoustic guitar in alternate-thumb style and taking a laid-back but cleanly played solo. Next was an original in the same rootsy vein, “Queen Bee,” followed by his version of “Stagolee,” a ballad about an 1895 murder by a St. Louis pimp over a Stetson hat. Taj’s solo, though, was a surprising departure from blues into Afro-pop, and a sign of how many musical pies he’s had his fingers in over the years.

Later, on electric piano, Taj delivered a loose adaptation to Little Walter’s “Blues With a Feeling,” his left hand maintaining a walking bass figure while his right hand played rolling riffs. Other standouts were the blues anthem “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and Taj’s lusty Hawaiian- flavored original, “New Hula Blues.”

He encored with a tender, self-penned ballad, “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.”

Dreamt up or not, Taj Mahal is name you don’t forget, and those at the Egg Saturday aren’t likely to forget his show, either.

—Glenn Weiser

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