From Madonna On

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

If you go to see Benevento and Russo play at Henflings Firehouse Tavern in Ben Lomond this Saturday, you will be astonished that two people can put out so much sound.  This organ and drums duo from New York combine jazz, rock and funk styles, and their music is so infectious that Henflings will be clearing the tables from the dance floor to allow the audience room to groove.  In addition to Benevento’s original compositions, the duo plays some well known songs, giving a new twist to classics such as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never be.”

Marco Benevento (Hammond B3 organ) and Joe Russo (drums) grew up in New Jersey and attended the same middle school.  There, they learned to play their respective instruments and played together in the school jazz band.  However, their musical connection extended beyond the school gates.  “I would go over to his house and we would play together in the basement,” recalled Benevento.  “We’d play Rush tunes and even back then we’d play Zeppelin tunes.” 

The pair’s paths eventually diverged as Benevento moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music and Russo relocated to Colorado.  Both joined bands; Benevento formed the Jazz Farmers with some of his fellow students, and Russo formed Fat Mama in Colorado, eventually moving to New York in 2000.  Russo had a regular gig at a club called the Lansky Lounge, playing with some former Berklee students who happened to know Benevento. By this time, Benevento had also relocated to the city, and one night he dropped in to see his college friends play and, purely by chance, the duo was reunited.

Benevento and Russo ended up playing together in a band on Thursday nights at a Moroccan restaurant, but after a couple of months the gig dried up.  Then Russo was called to play at a birthday party for Madonna, and called Benevento to see if he would be interested in playing.  “So I learned ‘Borderline’ and ‘Open Your Heart’ and we did the duo.  That was our first duo gig.’

The booking agent for the club that held the party then offered Benevento and Russo the chance to play at some other clubs.  After trying out a few different band formats with other musicians, they decided that the organ and drums duo formula worked the best.  They started off mostly just improvising and playing a few original songs and jazz pieces, but eventually a few rock songs began to creep into the set.  The audiences at the clubs responded enthusiastically to covers of Led Zeppelin songs, and so the duo’s distinctive style began to develop.

In the few years since Benevento and Russo have been playing as a duo, they have gained a solid reputation in New York and have played at some of the top jazz festivals in the country.  They have released two CDs, the most recent being 2003’s “Darts,” a recording taken from their live shows.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, March 4, 2004

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