Nothing like a great surprise to make the days more exciting. Hidden surprises give you reasons to smile and break up the usual predictability of mundane life. Like running into an old friend you haven't seen in ages and finding out they've just moved to town, or getting a Dutch postcard from someone you were just thinking about--these are the things you can't put in your datebook, they just happen. These are the moments that get us out of bed in the morning and out into the world, because fate is not a product of complacency. Activity makes for positivity.

Michael Polans knows all about being active. A year ago he had some great things going for him – his production company Portabella Music was bringing great artists to play and great fans to listen down at the Conduit in Trenton, New Jersey, breathing life into a city that only knows poverty and struggle. Mike was building a music community in a city that cannot build homes for its residents, but his success was gone almost as soon as it came. The Conduit closed its doors this past summer and that new life was put to rest.

Always selfless and unrelenting, Michael was not about to give up. He took one good look down the Delaware and found a new home in an old one: Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Now some say Philly has an attitude problem, but I say it just has attitude. It's not the kind of place that changes for anyone or anything, and although first impressions may be a bit gruff, there's a lot of truth and honor underneath the city's coarse exterior, especially when it comes to music. The city's passion and loyalty have built it to be a launching pad for many national tours for many true artists, but those who might be faking it then aren't gonna to make it in this town. Mike doesn't front by any means, he only flaunts it (well not really). After last Sunday's star-studded Benevento/Russo Duo gig at his new South Street home the Tritone, where Mike Gordon, Future Man and Jeff Coffin were hanging out, listening and cavorting with Philly's finest fans, he might as well flaunt it because he's all over it.

When Marco Benevento and Joe Russo first walked into the Tritone, they immediately fell in love.

"We felt like it was the perfect kind of venue for us – low stage, about a 100-150 person room, nice lush lighting and colors in the room, chairs and tables to sit and absorb the music," said Benevento. "It reminded me of Trilogy in Boulder, which is a favorite among Joe and I. We've always been into the kind of 'downtown-esque' smaller rooms, it makes us aware of the different dynamic 'duo' possibilities, and plus I feel like I can connect to the audience more."

The connection was made early on as the Duo embarked on an evening focused more on their own dynamically intuitive compositions than the medleys of covers that have become some of the Duo's trademark material.

"The novelty of medleys of other people's tunes are great for an immediate connection with most people in the audience, and of course it's fun for Joe and I," Benevento explained. "But I think that we really get our vibe across when we play our own tunes. We'll always bust out some covers here and there, and hopefully we'll find others that will work with the Duo, but the main focus now, after doing that for so long, is composing new songs."

Along with the out-of-body originals "Darts," "Abduction Pose," and "Marzipan," the Duo treated the attentive audience to one of their newest compositions entitled "Inner Mouth," a look toward the more traditional, classic B-3 jazz flavor reminiscent of Philly native daughter Shirley Scott, but not without a trademark change heavy enough to shake the foundation of the smoky South Street scene. And although the Duo is concentrating more on their own songs they had to bust out some Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Radiohead for fun. You just can't keep them away from Rock.

It was the Duo's first gig in Philly and the beginning of Portabella's October lineup, which features a double-shot dynamo with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey joined by legendary Philly saxman Elliot Levin for a gig on Monday the 20th, and a party for Sex Mob's latest RopeADope release Dime Grind Palace on Tuesday the 21st. The warm reception was somewhat uncharacteristic of a tough town where usually rock reigns supreme, but the change of pace was good for a city trying to remake itself through its cultural offerings. And it always helps when some of the leaders of biz come on down to support.

"We didn't expect to see more than 40 or so people come out, and it turned out to be about 100, so that was a pleasant surprise, especially when all of these fantastic musicians walked in the room. I felt like we were in good hands," Marco said, and when asked if he was at all nervous playing in front those heavy hitters, his response was as cool as could be:

"I didn't feel nervous at all. In fact, I felt inspired and wound up getting more into whatever it was that I was focusing on. It made me search for something new in a song or whatever improv Joe and I we're working. We didn't do anything special knowing that they were there, but the night had such a great vibe. After the show, we wound up hanging out in Mike's hotel room with the rest of his band and recording some out shit on his portable 4-track. We were all singing and banging on wine bottles and pizza boxes – the album should be in stores by the end of the month."

Along with his new pizza and wine project, Marco has been stepping outside the Duo a bit to touch on greater elements of possibility, joining forces with the Master of the Boom-Bap, drummer Adam Deitch, and the Doctor of Style, Slip bassist Marc Friedman, on adventures in creativity that will allow each musician to broaden their own spectrums.

"Everyone brings something new to my tunes or a spontaneous improvisation... I'm not in a 'band' with Deitch or Marc, so there are no set ways to approach something," Marco continued. "There are no tunes that we play all the time and I don't know really what they are going to do. I'm still finding out what taste and style Deitch, and the other drummers I play with are, and we'll both do something totally new on an old tune, which is so important. For the gig on Friday (the 17th at the Knitting Factory Tap Room in NYC) with John Ellis, Terreon Gully and Marc Friedman, I'll be playing piano and Rhodes so in a way I'll be doing more of the accompaniment than the lead playing."

By stepping back, both Marco and Mike have been able to see their personal timelines in a different light, how they got to where they are presently, and what they must do to progress and build. Their pursuits have been founded on improvisation, on taking what the moment brings to them, embracing the moment and following it no matter how unpredictable the road might be. They know that without putting themselves out there and taking those chances, their lives would not be filled with the surprises that have inspired them, growing their pursuits into the magnificent sonatas they have become.

Stay on the Base and for all the skinny on what's to come.

Words by: Rob Krevolin
Images by: Jaci Downs
JamBase | East Coast
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[Published on: 10/16/03]

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