On the Rise: A Conversation With Kris Bowers

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

At the start of the second set at Greenwich Village’s Jazz Gallery last week, pianist Kris Bowers played 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 than 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.

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. 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 a music company, and appears on the most significant hip hop album of the 2011, closed the moving set with a song from Bon Iver, the cutting edge indie folk band, which has been riddled recently with Grammy nominations.  At twenty-two years old, it would be impossible to prognosticate a journey which 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 compromises 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 underneath his fingers and a wise restraint balanced by a conspicuously original sound.  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 [Moran] 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, specifically Los Angeles.  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 proven 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.”

Writing string parts was likely no tough task, 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…”

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

With so many facets to Bowers’ career, and his vast 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 Concord.  “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 about which he is particular.  “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 are 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 from which Bowers can choose.  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, Christian Sands, 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?

KB: 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?

KB: That new Thundercat album.  (Incidentally, that’s one of my favorites of this year also…but you’ll have to wait for the Alternate Takes Best of 2011 post for more details!)

AT: What are your favorite Hip Hop albums?

KB: 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?

KB: Bon Iver

AT: Name one person you would love work with?

KB: Quincy Jones

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

Beats, Rhymes and Life…and Jazz

When I first heard that there would be a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, I was completely psyched.  Tribe, as I affectionately call them, has been one of the most important parts of the soundtrack to my life, literally — period.  As paramount as that sounds, scaling it back even one iota would be a crime.  They were just that influential and impressionable on your girl.  I like Michael Rapaport, although I have some issues with him every now and then and was interested to find out that this was his project.  I wanted to see where this would go.  Then some months ago, I started hearing mumblings about the documentary having a great deal to do with the public and private turmoil between the group’s members.  Sure enough, quite a bit of the documentary is dedicated to the frustrations and personal relationships within the group.  The audience learns about the genesis of the group and the dynamic between its members, with Q-Tip being the extrovert perfectionist and motivator, at times to a fault, Phife Dawg being the uniquely talented, but admittedly often distracted artist, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the group’s centered DJ, whose quiet but introspective demeanor created an air of a role of confidant and often backbone of the group.  But let’s not let it be more than it is, actually; the dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg being no more than the story of what comes with being friends since the age of 2 and being in a group “all of your adult life,” as Phife puts it.  It’s bound to get to some level of ugly.  However, I’m happy to report that what I saw was ultimately a story about love.

How well was that story told?  Told pretty well, in my opinion, mainly because largely, the band  spoke for themselves.  There was little room for opinion from outside sources, which was great on the personal side.  On the musical side, I would have LOVED to see more interviews from those oh-so-relevant perspectives of people like Busta Rhymes.  The main “outside” musical perspectives came from Pharrell, Common, The Beastie Boys and Pete Rock; the latter being the one with the most perspective, but probably the least camera and talk time.  No disrespect to any of the other cats mentioned, but when it comes to Tribe, I think, by what people are most intrigued, is their music and how they came to that aesthetic.  So I think interviews from other producers of that era would have been really valuable.  Further, to interview some of the artists, who Tribe so brilliantly sampled, would have added an immense value and appreciation from the fans.  But let’s move on…

St. Albans, Queens New York was home to some of the most important figures in jazz.

What was so enjoyable for me was seeing a documentary about hip-hop which talked so much about jazz.  But, we are talking about Tribe, here. Again, since it’s basically a story told by the group in their own words and not some other unfortunate style of story-telling which happens so much with music documentaries, the truth was evident and really beautiful to witness.  From the outset of the movie, I felt jazz, automatically.  The opening credits were underscored by what sounded like some dope re-harm of “Scenario”.  Knowingly, I was in for something special.  Within the first ten minutes of the movie, Jarobi White (an original member of ATCQ, who left the group after their first album) takes the audience on a tour of St. Albans, Queens and its famous jazz mural.  St. Albans, where Q-Tip and Phife grew up, was at some point, home to John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, and Count Basie — just to name a few.  For Tribe, the mural was a symbol of the influence which jazz would have on the group and the affluence which they hoped to attain, moving up in the world both artistically and socially.  As the story unfolds, we learn about how the group developed musical and personal relationships with The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul and how they would get their first big break through the iconic New York-based DJ Red Alert , who happened to be the uncle of Jungle Brother member Mike Gee. Subsequently, A Tribe Called Quest also received the largest recording advance ever given to a hip-hop group at that time.

Above anything else, in this documentary, you see how much Black culture influenced this ground-breaking group, with Q-Tip drawing consistent parallels to jazz, soul and even comedy.  You get to really see first-hand how ingrained their culture really is, as even in casual conversation, Tip references Stevie Wonder or Duke Ellington to illustrate his points.  He divulges the back story behind the curious “El Segundo” explaining that it was a part of a phrase Redd Foxx often said on the sitcom Sanford and Son.  The Roots’ Black Thought called Tribe the “Miles Davis of their time,” when discussing their seemingly odd and Afro-Centric attire saying of that time “..they just know about some shit we’re obviously not up on.”

Also, this point can be applied to their signature sampling style.  A Tribe Called Quest brilliantly ushered in a huge wave of jazz lovers, who may or may not know that they’ve become indoctrinated.  Songs like “Bonita Applebum,” “Check the Rhyme,” and “Electric Relaxation” are loved equally (if not more) for the musical as well as lyrical content.  Q-Tip discloses a few of his samples, and credits his father as one of his earliest influences:

Back in the day when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager

You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop
My pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop
– Q-Tip on “Excursions”

Q-Tip, who was the group’s most prominent producer, shows a glimpse of his inner music junkie as he sits in a chair with a single turntable and holds up a Lonnie Smith album which he sampled for “Check the Rhyme.”  He talks about buying the album for five dollars from a record store called Jazz Record Center.  The film also follows the group venturing to a record store, walking past posters from John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, and Grant Green, as they flipped through albums and scratched and cut on the stores set-up turntable.  It was this type of visual insight that made this film so remarkable.

It’s not all fun and games, as the documentary chronicles Phife Dawg’s long-time bout with diabetes and shows how it affected his family and the group.  They discuss the ultimate falling out between he and Q-Tip at the 2008 Rock the Bells tour and Phife’s need for a kidney transplant soon after.  But it also shows the redemption of friendship, when he receives a text from Q-Tip which read, “Godspeed” before Phife’s kidney transplant surgery, as his wife was his donor.  It ends pulling on the heart strings of its audience, as Ali Shaheed spins “The Chase Part II” while Q-Tip and Phife practice dance moves for the song.  The innocence in that boyish moment seemingly makes it all worthwhile. The documentary closes with a little known fact-tease which stated that the group still has one more album on their original 1989 contract with Jive Records.


All in all, I thought that this was a job really well done.  Rappaport seemed to have taken more than a few pointers from his former employer Spike Lee and it paid off.  For the oober Tribe fan, who is probably the largest audience this film will garner, it was a film with enough little-known facts, as well as all of the reverie and sentimentality which we all wanted to experience.  Two thumbs up.♦

For all the jazz hip-hop junkies, if you’re interested in the jazz samples of Tribe and others during this  era in hip-hop, I recommend an album from Blue Note Records called Droppin’ Science.  You will hear many of your favorite hip-hop samples in a new light.  For example: