Kris Bowers Makes Kennedy Center Leader Debut
What a difference a year makes.
In September 2011, 22-year-old Kris Bowers won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition with his colossal virtuosity, high-velocity rhythms and jolting harmonies. On Feb. 2, Bowers returned to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.—this time as a bandleader.
Unlike his Monk Competition performance, Bowers was more concerned with the group concept behind his formidable quartet. It’s a revelation to hear musicians perform with their usual cohorts without the added pressure of exhibiting Olympian athleticism or aping historic figures to win over a panel of judges.
Bowers focused mostly on compelling untitled originals, many of which were modern takes on post-Motown bop. Tenor saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III brought a robust yet succinct soulfulness to the group. Whalum never hinted at smooth jazz, but his sound was as firmly rooted in Grover Washington’s Jr.’s CTI Records/KUDU Records period as it was in John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Corey Fonville played drums with plenty of forceful momentum and rhythmic dexterity but was superbly tempered by Burniss Earl Travis II on electric bass. Travis’ economical phrases and haunting ostinatos echoed the magic of Motown legend James Jamerson and Michael Henderson’s mid-’70s work with Miles Davis.
Bowers alternated deftly between acoustic and electric piano, showing that he has as much game as a keen accompanist—especially during Whalum’s burly improvisations. Only during a solo piano medley of chestnuts such as “’Round Midnight,” “Epistrophy” and “My One And Only Love” did Bowers shamelessly show off his technical prowess. When his bandmates returned, Bowers reassumed the roles of both savvy bandleader and ensemble player with an enticing reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’.”
DownBeat chatted with Bowers about life after the Monk Competition, becoming a bandleader and playing with hip-hop royalty and singer José James.
Since winning the Monk Competition, how has your artistry grown?
I’ve had to make myself think like a bandleader. I’d always anticipated becoming a bandleader eventually. But I figured that I would follow the traditional jazz route of pianist by playing with a bunch of other people then doing a [solo project]. Because of all the different opportunities that come from [performing in] the competition, you’re forced to be a leader. With that comes having to decide how you feel about your music and the way that you want to present yourself. That translates into everything, such as whom I want to play with.
Describe some of your growing pains in becoming a bandleader.
There’s been a whole lot [laughs]. I think I should have paid more attention in business class, first of all. There are little logistical things that I didn’t know. It helped me discover a little more about myself.
How did you invest the $25,000 prize that you won from the Monk Competition?
I still had one more semester left of my master’s degree at The Juilliard School. Half of it is cash; the other half is scholarship. I bought some equipment, but most of it was for savings so that I could afford to live in New York.
Do you have a working title for your Concord Records debut?
There’s definitely a concept behind it, but I don’t really have an actual title for it yet. We recorded it in December. We have to do a little post-production stuff then all the mixing and mastering.
What can we can expect from the disc?
The disc will feature José James, Chris Turner, Jamire Williams, Julia Easterlin, Casey Benjamin, Kenneth Whalum III, Adam Agati and Burniss Earl Travis. The music is all original. I co-wrote with a lot of people. It’s pretty exciting.
Talk a bit about your recent experiences working with José James and Jay-Z.
Well, I have never played directly with Jay-Z. When I played on “No Church In The Wild,” it was because I did a show with [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Q-Tip. And one of the special guests was Kanye West. Afterward, Q-Tip was working on that track, so he, Kanye, Pharrell Williams and I worked for a couple of days. They’re definitely more of musicians than people often give them credit for—especially Q-Tip. He knows more records than most jazz musicians. Q-Tip knows both jazz and hip-hop. He exposed me to some jazz records that I’d never heard of, and hearing them talk about old [hip-hop] records the way we talk about older jazz records was really interesting. Q-Tip also has perfect pitch and plays piano. It was great to work with him, but a lot of that world is playing specific sounds, and that is a skill in itself.
With José, it’s great because he’s doing something that I’ve never heard before in terms of interacting with the band. Instead of scatting like a normal [jazz] vocalist, he mixes up his lyrics like a DJ on the turntables. It’s really dope to be able to do that in that context. He’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a singer’s gig.
How did the band that you’ve featured at the Kennedy Center come about?
All of these guys are my best friends. This exact band played a couple of years ago when I met Kenneth, who called me to do a gig with him. He had me come down to Florida. I had also known Burniss for a while. He was the one who actually recommended me for the gig. I had known Corey for a little while, too. We kind of all came together there in Florida. We’ve played in different settings ever since. Whenever I have a gig, usually Kenneth and Burniss are there. These are the guys of our generation, not only because they’re playing with me, but also because they’re playing with people like Gretchen Parlato, Robert Glasper, Ludacris and Maxwell.