Sitting outside on Grand Avenue, three doors down from the apartment he shares with drummer Jim Orso, Syd Rodway looks off into something -- just what, there's no telling -- but it's the same look of serene and intense concentration that comes over him when he finishes a solo, sits and lets his group -- Orso, bassist Dan Loomis, and pianist Adam Maness -- flash into a trio improv like hounds running deer. The inner radar comes on; he's listening close, seeing through his hearing as only the blind or a jazz musician can.
At 29 years old, Rodway is easily one of the most emotional, energetic and technically awesome young jazz musicians in town. He's also a quick study. "I've been playing for 12 years. I started in high school at (St. Louis University) High, playing flute. I picked up sax on my own. I rented a horn and went to a SLU football game and sat in with the pep band. The director just said, 'Go ahead and blow!' That was my first gig with the sax." It wasn't until 1996 that Rodway played jazz consistently. "I studied at University of Kansas, but they did mostly classical music. I never fit in. With classical, they always wanted one kind of tone, and I could never have a personal voice. I always found it very one-dimensional sonically. It built technique, but I never took to it. I got, like, B's in the saxophone class. I gigged around Lawrence in funk bands in the early '90s. Baghdad Jones was one band. I learned so much about communicating with an audience, building a solo and getting a repertoire going."
Rodway returned to St. Louis in the mid-'90s, joining acid-jazz band Sky Bop Fly, then moving into straight-ahead jazz, but tentatively. He formed his first trio in '98. "I was taking lessons with Paul DeMarinis. He said, 'I gotta level with you: You've got a big hole in your playing. You've got to listen to some more traditional players. Have you ever heard Sonny Rollins?' I'd heard Sonny but never listened closely. I bought Saxophone Colossus, and that changed everything. In Rollins, I really started to understand the harmony in jazz and developed a bebop sense of playing. That's something I'm still trying to do. I always wanted to be a drummer, and so I approach the horn like a drum set sometimes. I like to play just one or two notes, but if it grooves, that's what counts."
Onstage at Troy's on the Park, where the quartet plays every Friday evening, Rodway will lay into a short two- or three-note series, staccato bursts like Latin percussion, only the tone is deep and rich and open-ended. He seems to trade places with the rhythm section, letting them color in the melodies while his horn pronounces the beat. The club is a bit slow at the early start time, 8:30 p.m., but picks up later. It's easily one of the best listening rooms for jazz in town, intimate and smartly decorated with linen, candles and the original tulip-shaped light fixtures. The sightlines to the stage are ideal, the mood casual, romantic.
In St. Louis, such rooms supporting such serious, imaginative jazz are a dying breed. There's Spruill's; the Backstage Bistro; Cafe Mangia; B.B.'s Jazz, Blues & Soups, on occasion; and Troy's. That about covers it. "The other thing about clubs in St. Louis," Orso adds, "is there are no jazz clubs with pianos, and that's a big limitation."
The situation could be worse -- sometimes is. The next night, Rodway, Orso and Loomis regroup as a trio, playing at New Orleans-style restaurant Bobby's in Maplewood. The stage is a joke, a small island over the bar, with Margaritaville T-shirts dangling in the players' faces, ESPN on the TVs, waitresses bitching each other out. At one point, the owner comes over and complains to Rodway about the length of their break. A fight erupts in the lobby.
The band pushes through the bullshit. Orso and Loomis coax and weave the rhythm, refusing to play over the din, choosing insinuation over volume for a Sarah McLachlan revision. Rodway's sax speaks like a wise child, fluttering up and down over scales for a long, hushed and hushing fadeout. The trio wins over a few patrons. "They make the audience move," a woman says to her date.
Rodway's quartet has been working together since February, flipping pop tunes -- "Roxanne," "Graceland," "I Can't Make You Love Me" -- on their heads, getting diggity on the Joshua Redman tune "Hide and Seek." "I grew up funk," Rodway says. "Maybe I should turn the tape recorder off, but when I first started I was into David Sanborn. But I'm not that ashamed of that; he was original in some ways, and he never claims to be jazz. With this group, I wanted to get away from standards, as much as I like them. We pull things off records that aren't known, or stuff that we write."
"Eric Markowitz told me this, and I agree," Rodway continues, "that pop tunes of today aren't as well written chord-wise, melody-wise as they used to be. You take a Nirvana tune vs. a Cole Porter tune, and there's a big difference. But we didn't let that deter us. We'll write our own changes."
"Everybody in the group sees the audience as an integral part of the performance," Orso says. "Some jazz musicians don't want to cater to an audience, but we try to make an exchange between people listening and the music. It's no longer just the people playing vs. the people listening."
The band relies on savvy adaptations of familiar tunes to hook a crowd, then follows up with a tough Ellington number, a Coltrane tune, even an original. Keyboardist Maness has written two songs for the group and plans to contribute more, which, for a 21-year-old, is both ballsy and refreshing. "I have these pockets where creativity comes out," he says. "When I practice, work on my lines, I'll play pop tunes, too, and then songs will just come out." Like Rodway, he studied classical music but began as child; he was then mentored by CarolBeth True for two years. His first gig came when he was 17. "It was a pretty crappy Dixieland gig, at a Shell station at 141 and Manchester, a Rams kickoff party. For my first gig, I thought it was cool. Dan Dierdorf was there. I thought it was great to play music for three hours and get $50 dollars. I was working at McDonald's at the time."
Maness moved on to wedding gigs, pop bands and the round of funk acts, then hooked up with Willie Akins. "I showed up at one of Willie's jam sessions, and he asked me to play with him down at Spruill's. I probably wasn't ready for it -- I must have stunk it up. He fired me and got another piano player. But he called me back, and I've been playing with him for a year-and-a-half. Every night is like a lesson in the history of bebop. He's so solid, he's just a wack. He gets going on eighth notes and can go forever, and everything is beautiful."
Down at Troy's on Friday, midway through "I Can't Make You Love Me" -- a showcase for Orso's Brazilian mallet work and Loomis' sexy bass lines -- Troy leans over and whispers, "Not bad for a bunch of white boys." As with Dave Stone and Eric Markowitz, their musical analogs at Cafe Mangia, the Syd Rodway Quartet have musically crossed age and color lines, but few think twice about these young white kids' legitimacy. The fact is, they can play. Rodway explains: "Rob Block says that the three areas where a white person is an underdog are rap, jazz and the NBA. It's true. You play jazz and you get a little taste of what it's like to come from that heritage, and to be in this society, and to be on the other side. But that's just the way it is. Black folks are good at jazz."
"Color isn't gonna mean you can play or not play," Orso adds. "But it's a cultural thing. Jazz from its birth has been black music, but now it's become everybody's music."