On an Upward Swing
Music Department has impact on and off campus
(March 5, 2013) From the very first notes – with five saxes in shifting, subtle harmonies – the tone was set at the Altamont Theatre downtown, and the changes in UNC Asheville’s music program were clear. The level of musicianship and creativity is rising higher, and the program has serious aspirations.
The lead catalysts are Assistant Professors William Bares and Brian Felix, both accomplished keyboard artists and teachers, who joined the faculty in August 2012, and who have a passionate following among music students.
“I got into Berklee College of Music in Boston, and during my freshman year, I was thinking about transferring there,” said bass-playing junior, Frank Meadows. “But then Dr. Bares and Dr. Felix came along. As I started working with them, I thought I could hang out with these guys and pick their brains. They’ve started these innovative ensembles and students are really involved.”
To give students jazz club performance experience, Bares and Felix have secured a monthly date at the Altamont for the UNC Asheville’s student ensembles. Each ensemble goes into depth studying and performing a particular genre of jazz or contemporary music; this semester, the musical menu includes hard bop, Brazilian bossas, classic jazz, free jazz, and the Beatles songbook.
“The reality is, you have to know how to do all kinds of things to make a living as a musician these days,” says Felix, who brings musical diversity with his jazz/rock/pop background. “Adding R&B, Bossa Nova, Frank Zappa’s music and rock & roll here makes it a practical training ground – maybe more so than many other music programs.”
UNC Asheville’s Music Technology program, once the home of Moog Synthsizer inventor Bob Moog, is an established success at readying students for careers. And now the university is looking to become a career launching pad for musicians, through the addition of a new Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemporary Music degree program.
Music Department Chair and Professor Wayne Kirby is hoping final approval of the new BFA program will come in time for Fall Semester 2013. “With an expanded array of core requirements with the BFA,” says Kirby, “students will get all the intensive work they need on their instruments, ensemble playing, advanced jazz theory and improvisation. It will be a serious degree.”
The addition of Felix, Bares and adjunct instructor Jacob Rodriguez to the faculty has proven important in inspiring current music students and attracting new ones. Bares’ piano and Rodriguez’s sax playing have made both musicians audience favorites in weekly gigs together Wednesday nights at Tressa’s in downtown Asheville and Sunday nights at the new Isis in West Asheville.
This represents additional musical symbiosis between the city and the campus, helping make the city a stronger cultural center. UNC Asheville music technology graduates are already key figures in Moog Music and the now Grammy-winning Echo Mountain Recording Studio. And by attracting Bares, the university is helping build the city’s rejuvenated jazz scene. Conversely, UNC Asheville students benefit greatly from the work of Rodriguez and many other Asheville-based musicians who serve as adjunct instructors.
While Bares has the duties of a full-time faculty member in addition to his performances, Rodriguez’s faculty role is part-time, but he is extremely busy as a performer, playing and recording with the indy rock band Stephanie’s Id, and touring with multiple-Grammy Winner Michael Bublé.
“[Rodriguez] is just a mind-blowingly amazing saxophone teacher,” says sophomore Alex Sass, who plays alto in the UNC Asheville Saxophone Quintet. “Every time I’m in the room with him, I can feel myself getting better and better and better. It’s been an amazing time.”
In the Quintet, Sass blows right next to Rodriguez, with tenor player Ben Colvin, a transfer student from Warren Wilson College, on the other side. The performance at the Altamont was hardly a new experience for Colvin. “I’m in a gypsy group, Big Ben and the Clock Towers, I play on the street a lot busking, and I play jam sessions at Barley’s [downtown],” says Colvin, who will pursue a UNC Asheville BFA degree, once approval for the program comes.
The infusion of new faculty and the possibility of the new BFA program, along with the strength of the existing Music Technology program, creates new possibilities for a future in music for UNC Asheville graduates. Meadows, who is majoring in music technology, is co-founder of The Apothecary performance space downtown, and is an extremely talented bassist, has this vision for his future: “The dream is to do a combination of recording work, session-based work and my own creative projects – as many things as possible.”
*All photos by Perry Hebard.