Styles in the key of free
Anticipation was running high for young keyboardist Marco Benevento’s appearance at Largo at the Coronet Wednesday night. Midway though a monthlong residency at the esteemed Oakland jazz club Yoshi’s promoting his eclectic new album, “Me Not Me,” Benevento rolled into town leading an adventurous supergroup of sorts from a Bonnaroo-friendly branch of experimental jazz.
Joined by eccentric saxophone gadfly Skerik and a percussion duo of G. Calvin Weston from John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and Medeski Martin and Wood’s Billy Martin, Benevento set aside much of his new album’s engagingly crafted, atmospheric piano compositions and instead led his ensemble through nearly an hour of unfettered improvisation.
But as can often be the case when working without a net, the evening’s results were wildly uneven. Although Weston and Martin have performed as a duo a number of times in New York’s downtown circuit, their rhythmic interplay often struggled to gel at Largo, leaving the entire ensemble on unsteady ground.
Whether a result of overenthusiastic exploring or just a rough mix (there was a lot of gesturing at the sound guy going on from the stage), Weston in particular was prone to overwhelm the music with wide-open funk beats that flirted with bombast.
Not that the players weren’t game for a challenge. Standing at the center of the stage, Skerik displayed the fearless, fleet-fingered style that has led the genre-defying Seattle musician to perform with artists including John Scofield and Roger Waters, often zig-zagging in and out of the swirling rhythmic core with guttural honks and lofty flourishes.
Benevento, on the other hand, was often relegated to the background on Largo’s venerable upright piano. Augmented by a pile of effects pedals that could make his instrument sound as if it were being disassembled or submerged in a distant sea, some of Benevento’s more rollicking moments were overshadowed in the group’s beat-heavy mix. He had much better luck with some of his more electronic-leaning impulses, which occasionally took the music to a clubbier place with a few well-placed vamps.
At times, the players came together and fulfilled their promise. In one excursion, Weston worked a cowbell behind one of Martin’s heavier rhythms, which evolved into something resembling the epic piano-funk of Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.” In another instance, the quartet rode one of Benevento’s trance-ready explorations into an insistent electronic groove that recalled the more linear moments from Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser.”
At the show’s close, the scruffily bearded Benevento thanked the hardy few who danced in the back for “contributing” before introducing the night’s finale as “something from rehearsal.” The group then launched into the keyboardist’s Latin-flecked reworking of Deerhoof’s “Twin Killers” from “Me Not Me” with Skerik taking hold of the song’s infectious lead with a gliding solo that worked through more twists than a carnival ride.
It was a rewardingly song-driven, yet free-flowing close to a night that offered no shortage of adventure but certainly might have benefited from more structure.