Right now there are grinning glances passing between five musicians onstage, the look of folks discovering the fun of playing together, finding new magic in the music they're making. Each of them will tell you they've never played "this kind of music" before, and are hard-pressed to pinpoint just what "this kind of music" is. The phrase "gypsy jazz" has been used to describe it, but such reductionism misses the point. As the keys lock in with the savvy, polyrhythmic drumming, surrounded by melodic, open-minded basslines and the odd glockenspiel or electric-guitar effect-not to mention the harmonic whistling, synchronized clapping, five-part vocal arrangements and hairpin turns in tempo and tone-it's easy to forget that at the heart of it all is a bespectacled guy with an acoustic guitar, singing you the songs he wrote for this band, Heroes and Villains.

That guy is Adam Raitano, who, along with leading Heroes & Villains, edits local rock-geek zine Music Liberation Project. While his lyrics and melodies paint vivid, mysteriously shifting pictures, his singing is affably straightforward. He's joined on lead vocals by Maranda Dabel, who plays the aforementioned glockenspiel and occasionally interjects on guitar. Dabel's voice can conjure frosty, detached textures, or plumb deeper tonal and emotional depths with surprising intensity. It's astonishing to learn she's never been in a band before.

"I would go to open mics and play and sing just for the hell of it," says Dabel, "but I'd never thought of myself as a musician." Still, Raitano heard something in her voice, and he invited her to sing with him on some home recordings. The resulting blend sounded like something worth developing.

One of the first to assist the duo was keyboardist Ali Ippolito, who had previously performed with songwriter Jeremy Serwer in Rich Man's Burden. At a musical crossroads, she initially played hard-to-get but says she ultimately fell under the spell of the songs and that pair of voices. Drummer Scott Magee, who came to Portland in recent years as percussionist for folk-jazz chanteuse Myshkin's Ruby Warblers, was conjured by a Craig's List ad within minutes of its posting, lured by Raitano's dry humor and telltale hip band references.

That foursome played together for eight months before even considering booking a show, then emerged in fits and starts under such questionable monikers as "Gorbachev's Forehead" and "Contra-Coup." It was at one of those gigs that bassist Levi Cecil was finally coaxed into the fold. "Actually," he confesses, "I left because I wasn't on the guest list. I went home and went to bed, and Maranda woke me up, called me and said "Where are you? Get back here!'"

"Then he freaked out in the first five seconds he heard us," says Magee. "Yeah," Cecil agrees, "and I started turning to people I didn't even know, going, 'They want me to be in this band!'"

Heroes & Villains play a benefit for Music Liberation Project with Sexton Blake and Jigsaw Gentlemen Sunday, May 15, at Conan's Pub, 3862 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 234-7474. 9 pm. $1. 21+.