Hometown Hero: Hiruy Tirfe

By A.D. Amorosi | Photo by Lidia Peterson

At 24 years of age, saxophonist Hiruy (Henry) Tirfe is killing it.

Not only has the Upper Darby-raised-and-schooled musician, in his brief career, already studied with the likes of composer-educator Anthony Tidd and played with top tier jazz lions such as organist Joey DeFrancesco and trombonist Robin Eubanks. The young jazz man with an eye toward future-forward music has backed up some of the biggest names in hip hop, such as Solange Knowles and The Roots, and has also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon. Tirfe even has his own t-shirt and hoodie line, “Everythings KILLIN” which means—like the biggest names in music, sports, and entertainment—Tirfe is a ‘brand.’

“I didn’t do a t-shirt line to be a brand, necessarily,” said Trife with a laugh. “Even though musicians are known for having everything from their own line of drum sticks and instruments to skateboards. I did it because that is my motto: ‘Everythings KILLIN.’ And it stands for having everything being good in life—it’s OK—and meant to promote positivity for everyone. It’s there to tell people from Philly, and all around the globe, that whatever you have in your life, whatever you are, you must appreciate it.”

Tirfe’s life as a first-generation American (his parents are Eritrean and came to the United States in 1993) is all about appreciating the little and the big things. Though his parents weren’t much for buying albums, music swelled within the Tirfe household, and the teen Tiruy won a John Coltrane tribute album while playing saxophone in an Upper Darby High School talent context.

Tirfe never looked back.

“There was something magical in Trane’s compositions that I wanted to know more about from that moment forward,” said Tirfe, who—as a saxophonist—is influenced by Coltrane and fellow reedmen Michael Brecker, Cannonball Adderley, and Dick Oats. “I’m also inspired by Art Blakey—everything he did as a drummer and as a leader, he did with intensity. His music was always passionate and intense. That’s something that we need to do with this music, any music—lift it higher. People in the audience want to hear that intensity, to hear their spirits lifted by us. We have to make that journey worth it.”

The ‘us’ that Tirfe is talking about is the other set of influences in his life, his friends and comrades in Philadelphia jazz such as trombonists Jeff Bradshaw and Aaron Goode who lift him up.

“This scene of musicians in Philadelphia are crucial to my existence,” he says.

After graduating from the University of The Arts with a bachelor’s in saxophone performance, a minor in music education, and a master’s degree to boot, Tirfe believed he wound spent his life, not so much as a professional musician, but as a teacher. “That’s what I wanted to be, that’s what I thought my vocation would be,” he said.

Yet, between graduating and working on his debut leader album since 2018—the work-in-progress Malcolm Gladwell-inspired “10,000 Hours” with its surprising take on sampling and the use of 808 rhythms (‘it won’t be your usual quartet or quintet outing”)—Tirfe discovered playing on other artists’ sessions and live dates, all in varying styles. There, he learned life and music principles that make sense for anyone looking to succeed beyond just being the soloist or the bandleader.

“I’ve played with rapper Chill Moody and vocalist Patti LaBelle where you have to make ample room for the voice. I’ve played during the Grammys 2020 broadcast where the job was locking in with a good sound and being able to diligently read sheet music. As well as lead, you have to learn how to follow, and be ready for whatever job comes to you. Locking in with a good sound like I did at the Grammys—that’s a talent to be proud of. You don’t want be the one saxophone out of many who don’t sound good.”

Keeping on the tip of positivity and positive affirmation for all players, Tirfe said, “For younger people: be ready for anything that comes your way. It isn’t always just about you, or what you can do. The job may be about laying down a groove. Reading parts. Hitting the bass line and staying there. Work on music. All of music. Make it second nature.”

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