Firm Roots give jazz band freedom to teach, play
It's a late Saturday afternoon on the North Side, and three members of a new jazz group are doing some teaching with words before preaching with music.
It also is a look at the other side of the group Firm Roots, a band made up of musicians who teach as much as they play.
“We all want to keep straight-ahead jazz alive,” drummer Thomas Wendt says, “and everybody brings something different to the music.”
Firm Roots is a band that says a great deal about that current chapter in Pittsburgh's jazz history. It is made up of six musicians in their 30s and 40s who have spent years — decades, really — honing their skills.
They look to be part of the crew that will carry the music to the future on the bandstand and in schools. Two have doctorates; all teach at area universities in one fashion or another; one at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts school and one at the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood.
“We have a foot in the past and an eye to the future,” tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade says.
The North Side event includes a pre-gig talk about the work of pianist-band leader Horace Silver, whose music will be the focus that night at the James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy.
It is what the band calls an early set before its show and allows the members to discuss the music they love. The session might seem to be a school-like way to spend a Saturday, but it has about 30 jazz fans drinking, eating and talking about music.
Besides Wendt and DeFade, the band is made up of trumpeter James Moore, bassist Paul Thompson, trombonist Jeff Bush and pianist Alton Merrell. All are steady members of the Pittsburgh jazz scene, showing up in each other's gigs and in a variety of others.
But the one thing they have in common is membership in the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, which is where Firm Roots had its birth.
Wendt and others talk about how the big band did a small-group setting at a number of shows to illustrate a leaner approach to the music.
“We had a great time playing together, so we thought we'd formalize it a bit,” Moore says.
DeFade agrees the combination presents something unusually creative.
“It is making me fall in love with music again,” he says.
While the members of the band agree they bring individual outooks to the music, they also share a love for mainstream jazz. They chose the name Firm Roots for that reason; the band is deeply rooted in the tradition of the genre.
Those roots snake different ways, though.
“We could do an evening of all Ellington or we could just do hard-bop,” Wendt says. He adds the band also did all-Miles Davis and all-Thelonious Monk evenings for weekend festivals on those jazz legends at James Street.
Bassist Thompson says the band tends to lean to the hard bop of Silver or Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but “we're still growing, so we could go a lot of places.” He says music such as that from Oliver Nelson's “Blues and the Abstract Truth” is not out of the question.
Merrell says one of the strengths of the band is how it teaches the roots of the music from the hard-bop era, something young students don't know. He says young jazz fans are often too bound to the current.
“Brad Mehldau is great, but he comes from a legacy,” he says, using the pianist as an example.
Trombonist Bush agrees the band is rooted in a style that had its heyday in the late '50s and early '60s. But the band's members bring newer musical ideas, along with stylistic and harmonic twists that weren't around then.
“But we are not trying to make the music too esoteric,” he says. “We are not playing things in eleven-four. We want people to sit back and feel good.”
Thompson says the band is feeling good, too, because all of the members are so capable.
“You have to be at the top of your game every night,” he says. “You have to bring your A game to every gig.”
The band has been in existence for a little more than six months, Wendt says, so they are still making people aware it. Bookings through the end of this year are lean, but the group is hopeful for next year, when it will work on residencies at Carnegie Mellon and West Virginia Wesleyan universities, where DeFade and Moore teach, respectively.
Merrell says he is going to feature them at Youngstown State University, where he teaches.
Wendt says Firm Roots also will appear at the Pittsburgh's JazzLive International Festival in June.
“It really feels good to be with a band like this,” Moore says.
Bob Karlovits is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.