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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Yesseh Furaha-Ali

Photo by Richard Conde
Yesseh Furaha-Ali

When you grow up as the youngest of seven children, you quickly figure out how to set your ego aside. Saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali learned that lesson as a child in Upper Darby, and it’s guided him through a uniquely communal journey in music.

“Growing up, I was very tight-knit with all my siblings,” Furaha-Ali recalls. “There was a strong bond, and the sense of fellowship and community was instilled in my household. So I definitely carried that with me as I left the house and stepped into the scene.”

Where many of Furaha-Ali’s peers embark on jazz careers with the determination to establish themselves as leaders, the saxophonist has always felt more comfortable as part of a community. He found one at Philadelphia’s Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, where he studied and apprenticed alongside such now-rising stars as saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius, pianists Jordan Williams and Michael Wooten and drummer Nazir Ebo. (A 2015 college send-off concert at the Clef Club featuring several of the above titled “Philly’s Jazz Futures” feels all the more prophetic by the day.)

In 2014 Furaha-Ali enrolled at Berklee College of Music, again with a close group of friends; he arrived in Boston alongside Demetrius and Wooten. After two years at the renowned school and a short stint freelancing among Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Furaha-Ali returned home, joining forces with two bands where he’s one member of a collective rather than a frontman in the spotlight.

Snacktime Brass Band is a New Orleans-style ensemble formed during the pandemic to bring music into the streets while clubs were shuttered. Omar’s Hat is a genre-blurring nine-piece band that recently released its debut EP, Selections From World Café Live, recorded during a livestream concert at the Philly institution.

Ceding leadership responsibilities to a group comes with its own challenges, of course, but Furaha-Ali’s upbringing left him uniquely qualified to handle such conflicts with empathy and diplomacy. “There’s a lot of butting heads most of the time,” he admits with a laugh. “But when we come together and play, it’s all love. Even when we fellowship off the instruments, it’s always love.”

Snacktime draws inspiration from the ever-evolving Crescent City brass band tradition, incorporating funk, pop, R&B and soul into a mix expressly designed to keep audiences—however impromptu—happy and dancing. Omar’s Hat is a similar hybrid, incorporating, as the saxophonist describes it, “funk, jazz, fusion, rock, new age, contemporary, indie. It’s a nine-piece band, so figure nine different personalities, nine different crazy musical minds coming together into one sound.”

That dizzying blend comes naturally to Furaha-Ali, again stemming from a crowded home filled with diverse tastes and personalities. Though he says that, “the foundation of my learning was jazz,” that’s far from the only genre he grew up hearing. “I was exposed to everything. My parents and my siblings used to play all kinds of different music around the house. Early on I gravitated to a wide variety of things – hip-hop and gospel, blues and reggae, jazz and classical. Thankfully the music programs that I went to instilled that into my mind and into my learning as well: be a multifaceted, well-rounded musician, don’t just stay in one lane.”

While all of Furaha-Ali’s siblings briefly played instruments, he was the only one who pursued music beyond those early lessons. He fixated on the saxophone after seeing the 2004 Ray Charles biopic Ray, followed soon after by the opportunity to see Charles’ longtime saxophonist, David “Fathead” Newman, in the flesh at the now-defunct Center City club Zanzibar Blue.

“That was the double whammy for me,” he says. “That was it. ‘I’m playing the sax.’”

While at Upper Darby High School, Furaha-Ali received a scholarship to attend Berklee’s Summer Performance Program, where he studied with high-profile instructors such as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. So it seemed logical to continue at the school for his college studies, at which time the late drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. became a key mentor. “Ralph was another father figure for me,” he says. “It was always a tough love type of encouragement.”

Peterson became another in a long line of elders who passed on their wisdom to Furaha-Ali and his peers, a list that includes Clef Club educators Lovett Hines and Donald Gardner, Bootsie Barnes, John Blake Jr., Tony Williams, and Anthony Tidd. Seeing several of those personages die in recent years brought home to the younger saxophonist the importance of the Philly jazz tradition.

“There’s a different type of community here,” he says. “Especially with the bond between the older generation and the younger generation. It’s a heavy passing of the torch that my generation and generations coming up have a responsibility to uphold.”

Not that Furaha-Ali has such a well-defined vision of the future. Finding himself home again, he’s enjoying his experiences reintegrating into the local community but is also open to whatever may come next. “I’ve always been a ‘where the wind blows’ type of person,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But wherever the wind blows, I know there are many lessons to be learned. I’m just on the path and I’m ready to buckle down.”