Ivory Keys and Music Degrees

Camp counseling. Working at a local diner. Playing on a soccer team.

While this is the way some students would describe their pre-college activities, Brian Felix’s would be a bit different. Well, very different. Try “one-time member of a renowned electronic jazz-rock three piece” different. And after a life of constantly moving, accomplished pianist and former OM Trio member Brian Felix has finally settled in at the University of Illinois.

New Jersey’s Rutgers University is where it all began. Originally planning to study history and pursue music on the side, Felix ended up changing his mind and his major, despite having not previously looked into the college’s piano curriculum.

“Kenny Barron, the guy who was teaching there, is world-renowned as one of the best jazz pianists, and I didn’t even know who he was when I first went to Rutgers,” Felix said, laughing. “It was very fortunate for me that there was such a great music program. It worked out well.”

While in a band called Trim, he met Ilya Stemkovsky, a drummer who was moving to Oregon to start a group that would eventually become OM Trio. A year younger than Ilya, Felix finished his education and drove a U-Haul truck with all of his belongings to meet Stemkovsky and Pete Novembre, their new bassist, mere weeks after graduation.

After spending a bit of time in Oregon, the band relocated to San Francisco, which became their base for the next three years. They didn’t stick around California for too long, as constant touring caused them to always be on the road.

“It was everything you’d imagine. It had lots of amazing highs and lots of incredible lows,” Felix said. “Living on the road, being a band that doesn’t have any label funding – you know, we’re doing it all ourselves – it was really difficult at times. It’s just hard, it’s just hard to do.”

But traveling in a cramped van for ten weeks at a time only helped with the group’s camaraderie.

“When it came down to it, it was just the three of us,” he said. “When you’re in a touring band, you develop a certain tightness, a certain language, a certain repertoire. The only way you can establish that is by playing every night together. In that sense, it was amazing. You create this whole, like, musical world. And that’s really what kept us going – the music.”

Playing shows at famous venues across the country – House of Blues, the Fillmore and Great American Music Hall – with famous musicians like John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, Joshua Redman and King Crimson’s Tony Levin, OM Trio accomplished a lot with their phenomenal shows and innovative sound. But, sometimes, it takes more than just music.

“We played all these amazing shows, and at a certain point, you need to see the audience continue to grow in numbers. It’s just straight economics . and after about 2003, we stopped seeing growth,” Felix explained. “We weren’t, as they say, ‘blowing up,’ and we just knew that we couldn’t sustain it, mostly financially.”

With monetary issues abounding, OM Trio called it quits in 2004, but still managed to accomplish their goal.

“We were going for something. We were going for this sound, and I think in the last year . we were really creating the sound that we were looking for,” he said. “We started . in Oregon as nothing, just a group of dudes, and we built something.”

After OM Trio, Felix began participating in the drum & bass quartet Drop Q and traveled to Chicago for a summer to do gigs with them. Formed at Summer Camp Music Festival three years ago with Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers, the group only performs a handful of shows, due to scheduling conflicts. And although his Drop Q bandmate isn’t experiencing the downfalls of touring that Felix encountered, he has no hard feelings.

“I love my life. So, as difficult as it was to stop touring with OM Trio, I’m happy with the way things are right now,” Felix said. “I think inevitably, there’s a certain amount of, ‘Well, they get to do the tour bus and the whole nine and get to play to the sold-out crowds every night,’ which is not something that I got to experience, so, there’s a little bit of that in there. But mostly, I’m just happy with the way things are.”

In the end, he permanently relocated to the Windy City, where he became a band member of The Make Believe, JUICE and The Machine, and Pete Carney and Orange Alert, and received a master’s degree in jazz studies from DePaul University. Now at the University of Illinois, he is pursuing a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) with a focus in jazz studies and hopes to pursue a career that utilizes all of his interests – history, performing and piano.

“The idea is to be teaching college-level jazz, college-level music history and then also be performing,” he said.

Felix, who now resides in an Urbana house of graduate students during the week and in Chicago each weekend, has remained modest in his future collaborative hopes, regardless of his musical accomplishments, college degrees and extensive nationwide tours.

“I would love to spend some time playing with super top-notch jazz players, because that’s the way you learn, right? You learn from spending time playing with people who are better than you and really, really push you,” he explained. “I feel like, if you’re not listening and you’re not learning from people, then what are you doing?”

If you’ll be in Chicago around the holiday season, don’t miss Brian Felix and Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins’ annual keyboard show, “An Intimate Evening of Solo & Duo Keyboard Music” (w/ special guests) on Friday, Dec. 21 at Schubas.

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