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Saxophonist Hiruy Tirfe puts in the time on his debut, '10,000 Hours'

courtesy of the artist

The sound collage that opens saxophonist Hiruy Tirfe’s debut album, 10,000 Hours, features a host of influential voices. Prominent among them, naturally, is author Malcolm Gladwell, whose oft-quoted theory about the time required to gain expertise gives the album its title. But it also includes former Sixer Allen Iverson, via an excerpt of his legendary “practice” rant; Questlove discussing sacrifice; Will Smith on his “ridiculous, sickening work ethic”; and Barack and Michelle Obama lecturing students on hard work.

It’s clear that Tirfe has drawn inspiration from these motivational pronouncements, and that it’s paid off: at 29, Tirfe has performed with The Roots, Patti LaBelle, Solange Knowles and other luminaries, while honing his skills on stages in Philly and beyond. But the key to his burgeoning success might be rooted less in these celebrity examples than in the humbler words heard later in the album. On “Mom and Dad,” Tirfe interviews his parents, immigrants from the East African country of Eritrea, about the struggles they faced in their adopted home.

“Work, work, work, work, work,” Tirfe’s father stresses as he recounts his experiences: crossing the border to Sudan on foot, arriving in the States with ten dollars in his pocket, working as a New York City cab driver, earning his engineering degree at Lincoln Tech and finally serving as lead building engineer at a Conshohocken hotel. “If you work, you can be somewhere.”

10,000 Hours marks Tirfe’s arrival, driven in no small part by his parents’ example. (He’ll celebrate the album’s release on Feb. 3 at Solar Myth, and appear the night before on The Bridge with J. Michael Harrison.) “Growing up as a first-generation American, a first-generation musician, and the firstborn in my family, Malcolm Gladwell's [ideas] really spoke to me,” Tirfe explains, sitting in the music room at Overbrook High School, where he’d just finished teaching.

“My parents made the sacrifices that they did to make sure I am where I am today, and it was important to me to get that across. One of my first memories is my dad going back to school while my mom was working in parking lots at 30th Street Station and South Street. It wasn't easy for them, and they instilled a lot of discipline and work ethic in me. Their example has been truly powerful and meaningful.”

courtesy of the artist

Born in West Philly and raised in Upper Darby, Tirfe picked up the saxophone in fourth grade after a couple of false starts: at three, his parents gave him a toy keyboard from Kmart (“I learned ‘Für Elise’ but I treated it more like a drum and broke everything”), and as a third-grader he flirted with violin lessons. Though he played in jazz bands in elementary and middle school, his full immersion came when he won as a soloist in a school district talent competition, receiving a John Coltrane tribute CD as his prize. He can no longer recall the musicians on that album, but its life-changing impact remains.

Tirfe’s first real mentor was the late elementary band director Brad Schoener, who also provided early guidance to saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins and Yesseh Furaha-Ali. Befriending those other young musicians, both now making their own impacts on the scene, was key to Tirfe’s development. Their peer group also included bassist Eric Whatley, who has gone on to play with John Legend, and Joshua “YXSH” Thomas, who has written and produced for the likes of Ty Dolla $ign.

“The thing that made the saxophone different from playing piano and violin was that when I picked it up, a community came with it,” Tirfe says. “We all encouraged each other to be the best versions of ourselves.”

That mutual encouragement helped him to overcome a significant degree of self-doubt early in his career. In part he traces that to growing up as a first-generation American, the advantages of which are balanced by a degree of unfamiliarity with custom. Much of what came naturally to his friends was learned behavior for Tirfe. For a number of years he went by the Americanized “Henry” rather than his given name, a choice that he now regrets. (His full name is pronounced “HUH-ROY TURF.”)

“Could you imagine living your young life and always thinking you’re unrelatable?” he writes in his liner notes to 10,000 Hours. “No growing person should have this much baggage on his/her mind. We’ve seen in history people not coping with that well which obviously can lead down a dangerous path.”

courtesy of the artist

As Tirfe elaborates, he found a way to channel those feelings into the music: “Growing up, I would compare myself to other musicians and it took an unhealthy toll on me. Eventually I realized that everybody's personal story is unique and special, so I used that to my advantage.”

Tirfe took part in the Kimmel Center’s youth jazz programs, first under Marc Johnson and later Anthony Tidd. He then enrolled at the University of the Arts, and while in school he began playing casual gigs with friends at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore. He also frequented jam sessions and late-night sets at Chris’ Jazz Café, Time and Heritage. As his reputation grew, calls came in for horn section players, which led to gigs at The Roots’ Wawa Welcome America! Fourth of July concerts in the early ‘90s, and a continuing role in singer Patti LaBelle’s band.

In 2017, trombonist Jeff Bradshaw enlisted Tirfe to join his band Brass Heaven for The Roots’ NPR Tiny Desk Concert featuring neo-soul pioneer Bilal. He’s enjoyed ongoing relationships with all of those musicians, connecting him with Philly’s hip-hop and jazz legacies. He cites the legendary Black Lily sessions at the Five Spot in the late ‘90s, the crucible for the neo-soul movement, as a touchstone for his own approach.

He aimed to replicate that model with his own Studio Wednesdays series at Silk City, which invited artists from a variety of scenes to the Spring Garden diner and club. (WRTI featured a video of the Studio Wednesday House Band in our @Home series, published in partnership with NPR Live Sessions.)

“One of the best things about this city is that there’s always something going on,” enthuses Tirfe. “It’s a very collaborative city. At Studio Wednesdays we wouldn't play any cover songs or jazz standards, we would just create in the moment, and any singer, artist, rapper, poet that wanted to jump on it, we'd see what we could do with that. I did it for two years and every month got crazier and crazier and crazier.”

Torian Studios

Those diverse influences converge on 10,000 Hours. The album’s core band features musicians whose paths Tirfe crossed on the local scene — pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly, bassist Matthew Keppler and drummer Lionel Forrester Jr. — joined by guests met through his wide-ranging experiences, including trombonist Aaron Goode and keyboardists Dan Rouse and Kayla Childs. (In her neo-soul guise as Black Buttafly, Childs will open for Tirfe at the Bride.)

The album’s thunderous opener, “A Cry for Help,” echoes the spiritual searching of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, while tunes like “Trial,” “NFF” and “Incentive” hint at the smolder of Joe Henderson or the burnished soul of Dexter Gordon.

The album takes a turn around the halfway point, evoking the Studio Wednesdays scene with the appearance of spoken word artist Chiara Chantelle and R&B singer-songwriter Mare, the latter of whom returns for the sultry “No Saving.” In between, Tirfe offers his own thoughts on overcoming diversity to usher in the band’s cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy.”

On “The Believer” and “Chances,” Tirfe integrates jazz influences with soul and gospel inflections. “Trial” also boasts the impassioned rasp of beloved Eagles center Jason Kelce and his iconic victory speech following Super Bowl LII — a distinctively Philly and profane (if that’s not redundant) version of the album’s motivational theme. (Though it feels more like a eulogy now, arriving in the aftermath of this year’s disastrous season and Kelce’s rumored retirement.)

With both Kelce and Allen Iverson represented on the album, it’s apparent that Tirfe sees a parallel between jazz and sports and the discipline and effort required to excel in either. While he name-checks the expected sax influences — Trane, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins — he just as readily cites the influence of trumpet players like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard as a trace of awe enters his voice.

“You've really got to play that thing,” he insists. “Historically speaking, the bugle would declare war. You can't declare war and not play. It's not necessarily about volume, but you really have to get your stuff together just to be OK on the instrument. If you're leaving an impressive mark, that means you really took the time.”

Bassist and Jazz Philadelphia president Gerald Veasley recognized Tirfe’s willingness to put in the time early on. After taking notice of him as a “daring soloist” in UArts ensembles and as host of jam sessions of South, Veasley invited Tirfe to take part in Jazz Philadelphia’s inaugural CORE Cooperative entrepreneurship and wellness program. The final project tasked participants with planning a mock jazz festival; Tirfe went on to make his a reality, creating and curating the Delco Jazz Jam last summer in Upper Darby, with Veasley as headliner.

“I’m impressed not only by Hiruy’s playing, but his willingness to put himself out there to create opportunities for other musicians,” Veasley says. “Certain musicians recognize that there is so much more work that can be done and has to be done to get to that place where you see yourself. We don’t know in real terms if it actually takes ten thousand hours to be a master, but I think the overall concept of intense, rigorous, consistent work to get where you want to be is proven. I applaud Hiruy for not resting on his gifts.”

It’s impossible to walk away from a conversation with Tirfe harboring any doubt that he fully intends to rack up those hours to achieve his goals. “If you have a significant goal in mind, if you want to achieve greatness, it's obviously not going to come overnight,” he concludes. “It's going to take a significant amount of time, and you’ll probably have to make some sacrifices.”

He adds: “Everybody's personal story is unique and special, so I didn't want this to just be a record showing off how proficient I am on the saxophone. There are a lot of people that are better than me on their instruments, but I really wanted to tell a story about myself personally.”

Hiruy Tirfe’s 10,000 Hours is available today. He performs an album-release show at Solar Myth on Saturday, Feb. 3. 

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.