Kris Bowers: New Power Generation

Balancing jazz intellect and accessible songcraft

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President Obama meets Monk Competition finalists (l. to r.) Emmet Cohen, Joshua White and Kris Bowers
By Pete Souza
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Kris Bowers
By Topshelf Junior

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Through his debut, Heroes + Misfits (Concord Jazz), 24-year-old keyboardist-composer Kris Bowers wants to comment on the power of his generation. “We have such a connection with one another and connection to a limitless amount of information via the digital age,” he argues via Skype. “We have so much more power than the generations before us, and the generations after us will have even more.”

Bowers recruited some of his contemporaries, then anchored the disc with the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which pinpoints recurring generational cycles in American history. From William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book, The Fourth Turning, Bowers cites the four generational archetypes—prophet, nomad, artist and hero—as inspiration for the disc title’s first part. “The last hero generation was the G.I. Generation, according to them,” he explains. “And the next hero generation, [the Millennials], is mine.”

“The Misfits comes from that fact that nowadays it’s all about becoming an individual,” Bowers adds. “So it’s not the negative aspects connected with being a misfit. Most heroes are misfits.”

For all its conceptual brio, the entrancing Heroes + Misfits is digestible. Since winning the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, Bowers has pruned his virtuosic improvisations to reveal more melodic cogency. The disc also shows Bowers’ gifts as a composer, capable of infusing jazz with rock, R&B and hip-hop on such pieces as the dynamic “Wake the Neighbors,” featuring Adam Agati’s searing guitar riffs, and the evocative “Drift,” which showcases Casey Benjamin and Kenneth Whalum III’s intertwining saxophone passages. “I’ve really tried to discover and distill what it is that I have to say musically,” Bowers says. “It’s been happening all my life, but since the competition, that goal has been more pointed and purposeful.”

In the past several years, Bowers has been exploring a wealth of music by touring with bassist Marcus Miller, recording on hip-hop tracks for Jay-Z with Kanye West and Q-Tip, and playing special engagements for Aretha Franklin and Benny Golson. Bowers also played with the Concord Jazz label’s all-star combo, NEXT Collective, on the 2013 disc CoverArt.

Raised in Los Angeles, Bowers began taking piano lessons at age 4 and studied classical music, which he liked but didn’t love. “I had more fun learning how to play hip-hop songs on the piano,” he recalls. “Eventually, my parents put me into jazz [classes], seeing how I wanted to find a more creative way to play the piano. I just stuck with that, because I loved the freedom it gave me.” While attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, he studied with pianists Donald Vega, Danny Grissett and Mulgrew Miller. He later moved east to attend Juilliard for undergrad and stayed to earn a master’s degree in jazz performance with a focus in film composition.

Bowers has scored two forthcoming documentaries—Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me and Sandy McLeod’s Seeds of Time—and his Heroes + Misfits features a marked cinematic quality. Another intriguing component of the album is his use of vocals. The four vocal-centered compositions—“#TheProtester,” “Forget-er,” “Wonderlove,” and “Ways of Light”—all have the potential of becoming early 21st-century jazz staples. “#TheProtester” builds to a vocal standoff between R&B crooner Chris Turner and Benjamin on vocoder, both of them singing angst-ridden lines: “Who are we? What are we to you?” “Forget-er” begins with a loop of Julia Easterlin’s voice, soft and beautiful, which gives way to Bowers’ gentle counterpoint melody atop Jamire Williams’ drum patterns. As the song gathers momentum, she sings enigmatic lyrics about personal isolation. Bowers and Easterlin collaborated on “Forget-er” by e-mailing snippets of the song back and forth so that each could contribute additional layers. It wasn’t until the recording session that Bowers saw Easterlin’s words. “The lyrics are sort of self-deprecating, miserable and ridiculously melodramatic,” she says, explaining that the verses reflect not a particular interaction with a person but her sullen mood when she moved to New York in the “dead of winter.”

More upbeat is “Wonderlove,” which recalls Stevie Wonder’s work with Minnie Riperton, thanks to Turner’s amorous sighs. “One of my parents’ favorite artists was Stevie Wonder. He’s one of my all-time heroes,” says Bowers, also explaining that he borrowed the name of the icon’s 1970s backup band for the song’s title. This time, the pianist wrote the lyrics. “I thought about the idea of wondering how you could be lucky to have someone incredible come into your life that you love,” Bowers says. “It’s about wondering how that happens.”

On the moving “Ways of Light,” José James sings to his unborn child about how he’ll protect him or her from an unjust world. In the past couple of years, Bowers has toured extensively with James. He also played on James’ 2013 disc, No Beginning, No End, and its forthcoming follow-up. James compares Bowers to a young Quincy Jones or Herbie Hancock, because of both his humility and his grasp of different styles and textures. “Kris has really expanded his sound. On my new album we were going for nice analog synth [sounds]; it was amazing watching him explore,” James enthuses.

Bowers says that he’s inspired to work with James because they’re of the same generation. “Watching him make artistic decisions and navigate his career is like having a big brother to learn from,” he explains. “It’s wonderful playing with someone who is close to what I’m aspiring to do.”

Originally published in March 2014

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