All that jazz

Jim Piela playing a saxaphone by a window with a view of a tall city building outside.Alumnus Jim Piela is finding success in New York City. His most recent album, “Out of Orbit,” has caught the attention of Big Apple peers.

Alum getting noticed in NYC

Jim Piela took a chance — a big chance. After studying music performance and performing in the area, Piela, ’08, headed for New York City’s big city lights, like so many wanna-be performers. But unlike many, he is finding success.

After continuing studies at New York University, Piela earned a jazz performance master’s degree. Now, his Jim Piela Group is a modern jazz quartet that emphasizes melody, groove and inventive improvisation, without the use of chordal instrument, such as piano or guitar. This presents a particular set of creative challenges to the improvisers – most prominently finding clever ways to present harmony in the form of melody.

Piela credits faculty mentors at UWL, along with many music classes, for his success. “Greg Balfany, Chris Frye and Karyn Quinn were essential to my education and growing into the musician I am today,” says Piela. “I ended up playing with all of them quite a bit after graduation in various bands and situations.”

Piela still refers to class and lesson materials. In fact, recently he was working on an exercise Balfany had given him in a jazz improvisation class. “Sometimes I think it takes years for the lessons you learn to sink in, or to really get the context or depth of a concept,” he notes. “Hopefully one of these days it’ll all start clicking.”

Jim Piela with four other members of The Jim Piela Group.

Jim Piela, ’08, second from left, is being heard in New York City. The Jim Piela Group is a modern jazz quartet that emphasizes melody, groove and inventive improvisation, without the use of chordal instrument, such as piano or guitar. His popularity is growing. Piela says he’s been getting calls from bandleaders and musicians asking for him to come in and improvise.

While the music classes were key to his NYC prosperity, Piela points to other classes — ones he thought he was taking as an easier class schedule — for who he became. And, for thriving in the Big Apple.

Piela opted for an “open minor,” thinking he’d take easier classes. So, he ended up taking African American literature, LGBTQ literature, logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, history of Middle East/U.S. relations and creative writing.

But his little act of defiance and laziness turned out to be a critical turning point in his perspective of the world.

“Learning about and reading the important thinkers on each of these subjects were crucial, but the most powerful takeaway was how deeply I considered and thought through these subjects, and realizing how little I knew about the world,” he explains. “These classes also really piqued my interest in philosophy, minority studies and history, all of which I’ve subsequently dug deeper into after my time at UWL.”

Piela can’t be more thankful to the professors who didn’t give up on an apathetic, uninterested student. “As an artist in a city as diverse as New York, it’s important to be able to really listen, connect, and empathize with people outside of your own cultural experience.”

Since his album “Out of Orbit” was released earlier this year, Piela has been somewhat overwhelmed how peers have received it.

“It’s really inspiring to get messages or texts from old friends you haven’t seen in awhile and musicians and saxophonists I look up to,” he explains. “It drives me to keep pushing, keep trying to improve, and continue to expand and develop my voice and craft.”

Piela says he’s been getting calls from bandleaders and musicians asking for him to come in and improvise. “It’s the highest compliment someone could give,” he notes.

Piela hopes to keep on pumping out hits, but admits keeping his head above water in NYC is a full-time job. “I’m associated with seven or eight working bands, and I have a nearly full roster of private students,” he says.

He plans to return home for a Midwest tour later this year.

Take a listen

Catch him

Take a look at his side project, the Planetary People

About “Out of Orbit” —

“As a young man, I came up musically in a small Midwestern scene, a town right on the Mississippi River. There was plenty of work so long as you could groove and play/write creative and compelling melodies, both of which became incredibly important to me. As I developed, though, I came to realize how my fear of what was unaccustomed had driven my life. It became increasingly important to me to break from my echo chamber, both musically and culturally, and challenge myself in a place like New York City.

“Such a drastic change terrified me, and that fear permeated into my life and my playing. Fear can push us into non-action, but it can also inspire. So one day I settled my commitments, packed my bags and got on a plane. I only had a few connections in the city, and no idea as to what might be in store, but with determination and a few serious legs up from then strangers- now-friends, I was able to adapt. Confronting the unknown and steering straight into what I feared most was my catalyst for creation.

“In the album; the space provided by playing without a chordal instrument, the high flying melodies, and the deep grooves reflect the untethered freedom and excitement I’ve found immersing myself in the unfamiliar. Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, but this album celebrates the elation that is uncovered when one overcomes that fear, takes risks and pursues the road less traveled. I think of every tune as a snapshot in time that facing the unknown brought about, and finding overwhelming joy in that moment.” –Jim Piela