HFA Faculty Profile: Felipe Salles and Gilles Vonsattel
The UMass College of Humanities and Fine Arts is pleased to welcome two new Music professors to our faculty this fall: Felipe Salles, a jazz saxophonist, and Gilles Vonsattel, a classical pianist. Here, Felipe Salles discusses his plans to teach his students that Brazilian music is more than just Bossa Nova, and Gilles Vonsattel asserts the value of understanding one’s long-term life as a musician, and finding good food on tour. Both agree that music is greatest when the performers truly love what they are doing.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, where I lived until moving to the US at the age of 22.
What inspired you to start playing jazz? At what age did you start learning?
My father is a music aficionado. He loves jazz as well as Brazilian music so I grew up being exposed to his record collection which now surpasses four thousand records. He always wanted me to play something. After a failed attempt to force me to learn the piano, we started "negotiating" an instrument choice for me. The drums and electric guitar were vetoed by my dad. Some middle school friends were getting a "band" together and one of them, Chico Pinheiro, now a famous Brazilian guitarist and composer, suggested that I would take the saxophone. After some more negotiating with my dad, who counter offered with the flute, I was bought a sax. I was almost 14 and I immediately fell in love with it. From there, discovering my dad's jazz record collection was a natural step.
Who are your greatest influences? What styles of jazz do you specialize in?
I have many influences. Over the years I spent time with many greats, I mean learning their solos from records. The ones who made a deeper mark in my playing would be Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Jerry Bergonzi, David Liebman and Michael Brecker. But that is quite a simplified and reduced version of the list. As far as composers who influenced my way of writing, Ellington, Jobim, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, Pixinguinha, Villa Lobos, Bartok, Stravinski, Bach, George Russell, Thad Jones, Wayne Shorter, Astor Piazzola and the list goes on. I do not like labels. Jazz nowadays can incorporate all kinds of influences. It is hard for me to define my style. Some people call it modern jazz, post bop, hard bop with Latin influence, Brazilian jazz, etc. It is all music in the end.
What is it like to have moved from Brazil, to New York, and now to Western Massachusetts? What do you like best about this region?
Actually from Brazil to Boston first. I went to New England Conservatory before moving to NY. I left Brazil in 1995 and was sure I would never return to live there. That was the level of passion I had for jazz. Nevertheless it was a tough transition at first. The language, the culture, the social environment, the weather were all extremely different than what I had experienced in the first 22 years of my life. But in a couple of years I was at home. They say home is where you make it to be. My friends and my passion made the US my home. A few years after graduating, I decided to move to NY and further pursue my career. New York is an important stop in the career of any jazz musician. It is a post school schooling, a place to network, to get inspired, to learn about other cultures, meet musicians from all over the world. I spent a decade there and had (and continue to have) great musical experiences. Over the years, my involvement with higher education has made me search for the right institution where I could teach at a high level, research and learn from my colleagues. That allied to the arrival of my son were main reasons why I decided to move to this region when offered the job at UMass. We have been here for about a month, but we love it here. Living in New York, you forget what quality of life can be...
What kind of repertoire do you perform with your band? Do you write the music?
In my band all the music is original and composed by me. A mix of all my influences, from many styles of jazz to Brazilian, Latin and 20th century classical.
What kinds of music/styles would you like to introduce your students to? What do you hope to bring to this University?
That is a tough question. I believe in understanding the tradition of jazz first. After that, the more you can enrich your musical vocabulary with other musical cultures the better. Brazilian music is my tradition so that will be always present in my teaching. I don't know how familiar the students are with that tradition but it is as huge and versatile as the jazz tradition. Brazilian music is not just Bossa Nova! I hope to bring that and Latin American music traditions to the ears of my students.
What advice would you give to students who hope to make it in the professional music world?
Love what you do above all. The passion and love for the music is what fuels you during the best and worst moments of your journey. Remember how lucky you are to have found something you love doing. Lots of people never find that. Work very hard, be disciplined, resourceful, inquisitive and humble. Your success is your responsibility, nobody else. Be flexible with your plans and professional at all times. Your reputation is all you have. Above all, have fun. It does not make sense if you are not having fun.
Tell us one funny, interesting or embarrassing story from a performance.
There are many funny stories... some embarrassing moments on stage when you try a new and very hard composition for the first time and it nearly falls apart on you... but if I have to choose one, it happened during a rehearsal with George Russell. George was well known for kicking musicians out of his band when he did not like their playing or when he felt they did not have enough energy. His music is very demanding both energy and technique wise. The tenor sax was always his favorite solo instrument. During one of his rehearsals, in the mist of a crazy loud solo section he points at me and signs me to stand and take a solo. The band was extremely loud, loud brass backgrounds, drums and percussion, etc. So I begin to whale in the hope that I can cut through the sound mass with my solo. I have my eyes closed and I am focussed in the moment when I feel someone really close to me and it nearly scares me to death to open my eyes and see George whispering something in my ears! It was obviously impossible to understand a word he said. I try to recover my concentration and finish my solo but in the back of my mind I cannot help to wonder if he was dissatisfied with my solo or my work in the band. When the rehearsal ends and stay behind waiting for an opportunity to approach him about what happened. So I apologized for not understanding his words in the middle of a loud band and asked him if he could tell me what he had said. He replied: "I just wanted to tell you to GO CRAZY!!!!!"
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Lausanne, Switzerland but moved to Boston when I was very young. I stayed in or near Boston until college.
What inspired you to start playing piano? At what age did you start studying?
I was four when I started playing so I can barely remember how it all started. My parents say they noticed me staring off into space whenever I heard music, so they thought they'd see how I liked the piano.
You studied Political Science and Economics as an Undergraduate. How have you utilized that knowledge in your life as a musician? Why did you decide to pursue a career as a musician?
I always wanted to have a career in music, but I was (and am) a big believer in the value of a well-rounded life and education. While I was getting my B.A. I was taking lessons at Juilliard and working hard as a pianist. I didn't get much sleep but I'm very happy I went through with all that. A political science/economics approach to the music business can be pretty interesting, believe it or not. Without certain key institutions we musicians could never make a life out of performing, so it's certainly worthwhile to have some idea of how the system works.
Do you perform repertoire other than “classical” piano music?
I'm too busy to play much other than classical, which is a good thing! I do play a lot of contemporary works, and it's getting increasingly difficult to label or think of those as "classical."
Can you describe some of your experiences collaborating with the musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center?
Working with musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is always fascinating. The organization brings together musicians from different generations and traditions at various points in their careers who are united by their love of music and their superb gifts as performers. Since I have been out of school and performing for a while now, I learn primarily from my colleagues. It's also valuable to get a sense of what a long-term life as a musician means...and just how important it is to find good food on tour.
How did you decide to come teach at UMass?
I've been fortunate to be given opportunities to teach as my career has evolved and I've really enjoyed them. Being a pianist can be an undeniably solitary experience - our core repertoire is for piano solo - and teaching is a great way to share and communicate that experience. I'm really excited to teach at a great school like UMass.
How would you describe your teaching style?
In a satisfying performance there is most likely a symbiosis between the composer's intent, the voice of the performer, and the audience. Achieving this is a huge mountain to climb. It's vital to realize that each artist is different and must create their own path to that goal. But more than technique or style a teacher has to communicate a love of the music - there's no better motivation.