When pianist Adam Maness leads his jazz trio through its weekly gigs at Thurman's in Shaw, he knows he's not exactly performing in a "listening room." He knows that people at the southside neighborhood bar have likely ambled over for a few drinks and some conversation; live music, for some, may be simply background noise.
"I'm totally conscious that we're playing a neighborhood bar, so we're not trying to beat people over the head and saying, 'You should like jazz from this era to this era,'" explains Maness, who is joined, most weeks, by Bob DeBoo on bass and Montez Coleman on drums. The trio has been holding down the Thursday night slot for just over a year, and in that time a steady, respectful audience has come with the expressed intent to listen to the music.
"We're so lucky that people listen and clap and are quiet — that's kind of incredible at a bar," says Maness. "I think, honestly, that's totally cool. We don't want to get precious everywhere with jazz — let's think about where it came from."
Maness' trio may be rooted in straight-ahead jazz, but its song selections run the gamut from OutKast to Radiohead to Nine Inch Nails, alongside more expected jazz standards. Taking pop songs and placing them in a jazz context is hardly a new idea (never forget that Miles Davis managed a deep-dive excavation of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time"), but for Maness, DeBoo and Coleman, reworking a three-minute song presents its own challenges.
"I love the Bad Plus so much — and not that we're exactly ripping that off; I don't think we could — that was a big inspiration on how we approach these songs," Maness says of that celebrated, genre-obliterating trio. "It's not like it's groundbreaking to play pop songs as jazz songs, but there aren't any fakebooks for Elliott Smith songs. It's a bit of a philosophy to make it work."
With the Adam Maness Trio as its anchor, Thurman's has recently transitioned into something of a part-time jazz club; the rest of the weekend is filled out with Kendrick Smith, a young saxophone player, and his trio, and longtime bandleader Dave Stone leads his trio on Saturday nights. Doug Fowler, who bought the bar a year and a half ago, worked as a sound engineer before his late-career pivot to becoming a publican, and his love of jazz — evident from the Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk posters on the walls — has breathed a new energy into what was formerly a beloved if sleepy locals-only bar.
For Maness, his weekly gigs at Thurman's sprung both from chance opportunity — he knew Fowler as a sound engineer at several venues — and his desire to dig back into jazz trio work after many years of playing in different settings as a sideman, an educator and, most recently, with the jazz-classical hybrid quartet the 442s.
Maness says his fascination with music began at a young age; he would use toy keyboards and air organs to pick tunes and melodies off of the radio from five years old. "I really started getting into it around ten," Maness says. "My dad has a really great record collection — Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and all that stuff. I was into it immediately."
By the time he auditioned for his high school jazz band, his director encouraged Maness to seek private lessons from Carolbeth True, the Webster University instructor and longtime jazz-piano matriarch in St. Louis. From there, Maness rounded out his high school years tightening his chops by playing jazz gigs around town.
"I ended up moving to New York after high school and went to the New School there in Greenwich Village," he says. "Then I got in contact with an old friend, Erin Bode, and was in her band for eleven years."
And while Bode's earliest recordings had a jazz sensibility, Maness describes his work with the singer as less jazz-oriented and more pop-focused; rather than accompany her on piano, he was often assisting with songwriting or playing guitar.
A chance session with DeBoo and Coleman — where Maness was a last-minute sub for a trio date — a few years ago planted the seed to recommit to straight-ahead jazz trio work.
"We had such a great chemistry," Maness says of that initial date. "We ended up getting a lot of sidework because the vibe was good."
Maness says that the Thurman's residency allows him to "reconnect with that side of my playing," burnishing his jazz chops that have, especially with the 442s, been pushed to include classical and avant-garde compositions. It's a role he relishes, but Maness appreciates the Thurman's gigs for keeping him centered on the music that has enthralled him since he was a kid.
"I was very clear that I wanted it to be something that we build together — selfishly, so that Bob and Montez and I had something to work for," Maness says of the residency. "It's nice to know that you'll have an audience every week, no matter how small."