“I guess you could say it’s unashamedly artistic,” concedes Dr. William Bares, describing The Asheville Art Trio, his latest musical project with bassist Mike Holstein and drummer Justin Watt. “These guys are musicians’ musicians,” the pianist says. “It’s really deep listening music, and the whole aesthetic is coming a bit more from the European angle, from listening to the music of the ECM label, and a group called E.S.T. (the Esbörn Svensson Trio).
Bares has been a leading advocate of jazz since joining the teaching staff of UNC-Asheville two years ago. “The size of the city and its musical reputation just appealed to my sense of adventure,” he says. “I felt like anything might be possible, and that’s kind of proven to be true. I’ve been able to do a lot here.”
Bares’ love of music began in Bellevue, Nebraska. His father was a meteorologist who worked in the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base.
“That was a good place to grow up,” Bares says. “Surprisingly diverse community for Nebraska, because of all the military families there. Nice band programs.”
Trumpet was Bares’ first instrument, and he earned McDonald’s All-American Band honors on the horn. “My entrée into jazz was through playing the high-lead trumpet stuff in jazz band,” he says. “The first improviser I ever heard was a guy named Ryan Kisor, from Sioux City, who now plays in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I would hear him playing over a song like ‘Cherokee,’ running circles around everybody,” Bares recalls. “That’s when I realized that there’s more to it than just playing loud and fast and high — that there was actually a third degree of intellect and skill and ingenuity involved.”
Shortly after high school, an injury to his lip left him unable to play trumpet. “At that point, I switched over to piano, and I realized that piano players had more fun because they were playing all the time,” he says. Bares attended Amherst College, where he studied political science, and took piano with Andy Jaffe. “He’s the one that got me hooked on straight-ahead jazz,” Bares says. “People like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, who I hadn’t really checked out in high school in Nebraska. I started getting into the roots of the music a little more.”
While taking courses at NYU one summer, Bares heard pianist Joey Calderazzo at a club near Washington Square called Visiones. “I guess every musician has that ‘bolt of lightning’ moment when they realize that that’s what they want to do, and for me it was really Joey’s playing,” Bares remembers. “It had that edgy New York thing that you get from more modern recordings.”
He worked for a year in Washington, DC — seeing pianist Geoffrey Keezer at a club there was the clincher. “Something snapped and I just said, ‘What am I doing working on Capitol Hill when I’m basically wanting to play music all the time?’ So I dropped everything and moved back in with my parents in Nebraska, and just played piano for six to eight hours a day, trying to get good enough to get into a music school.”
Bares was accepted at the University of Miami, a music lab that had helped produce talents like Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, and Bruce Hornsby. “I thought I was pretty good, and as soon as I got there, there were about ten other piano players who were able to smoke me, and some of them were coming out of high school. So it was like a whole new level of humility.”
He studied with Hornsby’s teacher, Vince Maggio. “Vince studied with Oscar Peterson, and he roomed with Bill Evans in New York. If you did a poll of the best piano players of all time, you might find those two at the top of the list, so I felt like I had a pretty good connection there.”
Maggio turned Bares on to Wynton Kelly, and to Ray Charles. Bares discovered Cuban piano players like Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, and Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez. “I emerged my last year there feeling like I had something to say. I had corrected a lot of blind spots in my own playing, and was ready to move on to the next level.”
Bares then entered Harvard to pursue a PhD in ethnomusicology, and he and his wife lived in Europe while he researched and wrote his dissertation and she completed her schooling. “I’m particularly interested in the question of who owns jazz, differing claims to ownership that Europeans and Americans have,” he says.
Bares taught the first jazz-improvisation class at Harvard before accepting a position on the faculty of UNC-Asheville. “As soon as I got through with Boston and came down here, I felt like my playing had grown magically without actually practicing, just because of the head trip that I took there,” the pianist says. “The different things that I wrote about and listened to in writing my dissertation had a direct influence on my playing.”
Besides hosting a Sunday-night jazz showcase at Isis Music Hall in Asheville and a Monday-night duos showcase (“Take Two”) at the White Horse in Black Mountain, Bares leads The Hard Bop Explosion, with Michael Bublé hornmen Jacob Rodriguez and Justin Ray; two trios, Billy The Kid & The Outlaws; and The Asheville Art Trio. “Billy The Kid plays more historical stuff, anything from Oscar Peterson to Errol Garner. It’s more of a straight-ahead groove,” he explains. “And with The Art Trio, I’ve got the other thing satisfied, which is more creative, individual compositions, and more of the European thing.
“I love that group, and our plan eventually is to figure out ways to integrate video into what we do, as an organic part of the compositions — so stay tuned.”