On the Rise: A Conversation With Kris Bowers

At the start of the second set at Greenwich Village’s Jazz Gallery last week, pianist Kris Bowers was playing for a packed and eager house. A packed, eager, young, and particularly diverse house, to be more exact, with a look, vibe and mood much closer to a college music festival versus what the typical jazz audience tends to resemble. For a brief moment, I thought I was having auditory hallucinations with the amount of hoots and hollers being emitted from young, female voices. It is a rare occurrence within the jazz club setting. In Bowers’ performance debut as a leader, that would not be the last series of eyebrow-raising observations for the evening.

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Bowers’ band for the evening was an assemblage of up-and-coming fresh faces in jazz with saxophonists Kenneth Whalum III and Godwin Louis, trumpeter Mike Cottone, bassist Earl Travis, and drummer Joe Saylor, with special guest vocalist Jehbreal Muhammad. The band of twenty-somethings played with a fire and focus beyond their years, performing an impressive amount of original material. Bowers, who is an orchestrator, founder of an online music company, and appears on the most significant hip hop album of 2011, closed the moving set with a song from Bon Iver, the cutting edge indie-folk band, which was been recently riddled with Grammy nominations. At twenty-two years old, it would be impossible to prognosticate a journey that is just beginning, but it is clear that Kris Bowers is setting a precedent of individuality, pushing the jazz envelope with a fierce, yet understated momentum.

If I’ve misled you to believe that his musical boundlessness and vast experience compromise his significance as a bonafide jazz musician, let me set that record straight nice and early. He is a tremendous pianist, with a world of history under his fingers, and a conspicuously original sound, balanced by mature restraint. He’s a bad cat. He convinced a panel of pianistic paramountcy (which included Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Danilo Pérez, Jason Moran and Renee Rosnes) of just that, taking first place at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition earlier this year, beating out some of the best undiscovered pianists in the world. An experience Bowers described as nothing short of nerve-racking, “I was nervous, definitely. Because you know, those were like all of my favorites [on the judging panel]. I hadn’t really met any of them…I knew Jason but other than that I hadn’t met any of them, so to be playing all this stuff that I pretty much got from most of them [laughs] I was trying to…play the best that I could.”

Like most musicians on the New York City jazz scene, Bowers hails from outside of the five boroughs. Los Angeles, specifically. Initially studying classical music, Bowers made an organic transition to jazz, which he studied at both Colburn School for Performing Arts and Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). After graduating in 2006, Bowers moved to New York, continuing his studies at the Juilliard School. “The jazz scene in LA…I mean it’s kind of sad. It’s pretty bleak,” says Bowers who is now a second-year master of music degree student in the Juilliard Jazz program. “Mostly because of the geography of the city. It’s so spread out, it’s kind of hard. Like, we don’t have an area like the Village where there’s a bunch of clubs you can go around to, and to get together to play…it can take an hour to drive to somebody’s house, [for example]. And then unfortunately, a lot of the clubs are closing down, like The Jazz Bakery. There’s just not many places to play out there. I think most of the people want to come to New York once they feel like they’ve gotten to a certain level, or feel like they’re ready.”

Bowers’ New York state of mind has proved a to be a wise one many times over. If you’re going to be in the right place at the right time, New York is always a good place to start. Twists of fate work their magic best in The Big Apple, as Bowers explains how a chance subbing gig landed him on the Kanye/Jay-Z magnum opus, Watch the Throne. “Casey [Benjamin] plays with Q-Tip and he was on tour with [Robert] Glasper, and he recommended me to do this gig at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, and it just so happened that at that gig, there were special guests like Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, Monie Love, and Kanye, and at the time they were finishing up a couple tracks from Watch The Throne that Tip was working on, and they wanted me to play some string parts on one song, and to write some piano parts on this other song, so it kind of all happened in a matter of days.”

The idea of writing string parts on a hip-hop album was likely intriguing, as you can add budding film scorer to Bowers’ resume. “That’s something I definitely want to get into, honestly more than playing…especially eventually,” admits Bowers. “I’d love to be able to dig into that. I’ve always admired the role that music plays in a film and how it helps tell the story and how great music can enhance a film and bad music can ruin a film…just how much power the music has. And also that it’s a literal translation of emotion; trying to compose and trying to write music that sounds scary, or sounds like this person is falling in love, or this person is angry…”

With so many facets to Bowers’ career, and his expansive musical inclinations, it’s exciting to think about what is in store in terms of his debut album, scheduled for an early 2013 release on the Concord label. “I have a couple of ideas, a couple of special guests brewing who are pretty awesome,” says Bowers who is currently forming his band, something he is particularly thoughtful about. “The main thing I’m going for with the band is that I want to feature a band full of guys in our generation. Just because I feel like a lot of these guys with their first albums, it’s just [about] names and they have these veterans, and that’s understandable…but I feel like playing with the people I’m friends with and who I know is going to put as much energy [into the record] as possible. They’re not just doing it for a paycheck.”

He elaborates further taking a cue from a master with whom he shared recent company. “Like Herbie’s debut album Takin’ Off. He had Dexter Gordon — he was a veteran — but everybody else on the record was around Herbie’s age. Even though now they’re jazz legends, at the time they were just like one of Herbie’s contemporaries, so I feel like what I want to do is play with people who are my contemporaries.”

There is certainly no shortage of worthy peers for Bowers to choose from. The well of young talent in jazz today is startling; most notably on Bowers’ own instrument, particularly as it pertains to African Americans. Not in the last fifteen years (at least) has there been such a surge of rising black pianists, all making their mark in the same generation. Bowers is in great company with the brilliant likes of Sullivan Fortner, David Bryant, Joshua White and Johnathan Batiste, to name a few. “It’s pretty great,” says Bowers of the strong representation. “I remember even being in high school and kind of realizing that there were like three black kids in the jazz department…in an arts high school…in LA. And when you think about the fact that this is our music…so yeah, it’s pretty great to see some young, black piano players and all be kind of on the rise.”

And climbing fast.


Getting To Know You…

AT: Who are your favorite pianists of now?
Well, of people closer to my age, I would say Sullivan Fornter is one of my favorites, and also John Batiste. Also, Lawrence Fields, Gerald Clayton, [Robert] Glasper, Aaron Parks…

AT: Do you have any favorite albums that came out this year?
That new Thundercat album.

AT: What are your favorite Hip Hop albums?
The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. That’s definitely one of my favorites.

AT: The last thing you listened to on your iPod?
Bon Iver

AT: Name one person you would love work with?
Quincy Jones

Kris Bowers performs Saturday, January 28th at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center at 199 Chambers Street; (212) 220-1460, tribecapac.org.