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"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."