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.

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.


“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III

I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

Kenneth Whalum III: Beyond the Hype

Photo by J. Shotti

It’s no secret that while jazz has always been high on substance, it offers fame and fortune to but a few.  Ultimate freedom of expression comes at a high price; a double-edged sword for many jazz musicians who sometimes struggle to enjoy financial fruits that can parallel their artistic ones.

Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III has performed, recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in music.  From Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, to Maxwell and Mary J. Blige, Whalum is emerging as one of the most in-demand horn players in Black popular music.  He is also the nephew of smooth jazz recording artist and eight-time Grammy © nominee and 2011 recipient, Kirk Whalum.  When deciding to record his debut album, To Those Who Believe, it would have been easy for Whalum to rely on his impressive Rolodex of platinum-selling musical associates, celebrity mentors, or wildly successful family members.  But Kenneth Whalum III has boldly stepped on the scene as a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, deciding that greener pastures aren’t always necessarily found in the comforts of the status quo.

“I wanna play music that’s true to me, and other lanes aren’t really for me,” Whalum explains about his decision to release a jazz album for his first recording as a leader.  I caught up with him last week in Brooklyn during a short break from his current gig with hip-hop superstar Ludacris, whom Whalum is currently working for as Musical Director.  “I can’t fake it, you know what I mean?  So, I just play what I hear and what is given to me and what just touches me. It could have been pop or R&B or whatever, but it wasn’t.”

On To Those Who Believe, Whalum enlists the talents of his musical comrades: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave (also three quarters of the Robert Glasper Experiment).  The four initially developed a musical relationship while touring with R&B crooner Maxwell.  Each band leaders in their own right, and each straddling between jazz and other musical aesthetics, this was an important commonality to Whalum.  “The fact is that I’m more comfortable with them because they’re not so set to one thing, and the truth is I’m not set to one thing…at all.  As a matter of fact, I’m newest to [jazz].  So, more than anything, we’re just all like…we have a great relationship. We’re just brothers, we act a fool, and I wouldn’t rather have anybody else in there, so I was blessed to have them to be able to do it and be willing to help me get my message out.”

Photo by Angelika Beener

Whalum’s message is one that is rooted in his faith, family, and his artistry, which developed in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.  The son of a well-respected preacher, Whalum began playing in the church.  “I just think growing up, there was a mix of the music and the culture and just the people…it really helped me to just become a well-rounded person.  A lot of times I remember things and different things pull on me artistically, and all of that comes from growing up there, playing on Beale Street, playing the blues all the time.”

Whalum transferred from Morehouse College in Atlanta, to The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where he began to hone his skills, taking the idea of becoming a professional musician a lot more seriously.  It is here that he also began playing jazz.  “[In Memphis] there wasn’t a jazz scene — period.  I can remember asking a cat how do you play double-time and he’s looking at me like…nobody knew [laughs] so it wasn’t until I got to New York that I really started to be able to grow in music.”

Whalum’s first professional gigs were backing up fellow Memphis natives like Al Green and Isaac Hayes, but a phone call from the musical director for hip-hop mogul P. Diddy, would change the course of Whalum’s career.  “Nissan Stewart called me.  He was the MD for Puff at the time.  For some reason Puff had fired his horn section, so we went in and he ended up liking us, and then from that we became really cool, so it was like the snow ball effect.  I would hang out with him aside from music.  He co-produced American Gangster, and he called me in to do some horns for “Roc Boys” and that was a huge hit.  So when it came time to do the video and shit like that, and for Jay’s tour, he brought me along as well.  Your credibility just goes up, regardless if other people have heard you or not, and people like me as a person, because I’m just chill or whatever it is.”

With an established reputation in the hip-hop and pop arenas, Whalum has since taken on the jazz realm, with the release of To Those Who Believe, which spent an impressive three weeks at #1 on the iTunes jazz chart.  Released independently, and self-produced (with Glasper as co-producer) Whalum is determined to get your attention without calling your attention to all of the pretty lights surrounding him.  “I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself by my whole name.  I just have always been a kind of stubborn cat; I always wanna be myself.  I don’t want people to judge me based on anything. I’d rather be low key than be known for something that has nothing to do with me.”

To Those Who Believe is a superbly executed hybrid of a panorama of Black music; all of which speak to Whalum’s personal story.  The album opens up with a gorgeous hymn-like chant, with portions of one of his father’s sermons floating throughout.  Whalum also briefly showcases his vocal talent, which he modestly downplays, on a larger scale.  “I don’t feel like just because I can sing, I should; that’s not killing.  I like to respect everybody’s lane.  Like LeBron going to the Heat, and being like ‘Oh, I think I’ll get a ring now…’  But it never really works out well, because you have to have respect for whatever game you’re playing, whether it be music, acting…I just like to respect that.”  The hard-swinging “STS” is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Mr. Knight” with Glasper delving into his inner McCoy Tyner and Whalum reveling in its blues-based form.  Much of the album has a meditative quality that speaks to Whalum’s spiritual foundation.  “My influence is one of my favorite records, which is [John Coltrane’s] Crescent.  That record never gets old to me.  Regardless to what kind of mood I’m in, I can listen to Crescent.  It’s so thoughtful.”

Stepping out onto new musical territory has proved a wise decision for Whalum, not only because of the certain promise for this rising talent, but also because his range of experience and ability can help continue to garner a younger, Blacker jazz audience — a sorely needed advancement.  On the sometimes sticky subject of the interfusion within jazz, Whalum offers some sobering advice.

“I think everybody needs to fucking relax because there is no money – period.  People fight to make themselves the only person in a certain lane, but that’s not really how it ever was.  That’s why back in the day you got all kinds of cats on one record, doing records together.  You don’t really get that anymore.  You may get Wynton doing records with country artists but I mean working together. Which is why I was glad to have Rob [Glasper].  Rob is a star, and he didn’t mind helping me…that kind of thing.  I think the fact that we understand that sentiment, helps us.  Not that we’re where we could be, but we don’t mind where we are.  Everybody’s got to relax.  I don’t mind what anybody’s doing.  The level of appreciation for everything can always lead you to a better place.  You’re thinking that this is the only way?  This isn’t the only way at all.  I just think we need to appreciate each other more.  We all have different things to say and I don’t think it’s fair to judge anybody.  Cats judge all day.  I think that’s the wrong way.  The older jazz head fans are slimming out, so now the message has to be straight up what you got to say and either people gonna like it or they’re not.”

Photo by Eric Johnson

Whalum’s perspective is well beyond his twenty-some-odd years; likely due to his early exposure to the music business and his rock-solid foundation.  And it is this security that is undoubtedly in-part responsible for his decision to play jazz.  When you’re not phased by the hype, you can hear yourself better and have a clearer path to your individual calling.  Moreover, so many of our Black musicians are confined to the church and popular music, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that reality, the exposure to the totality of our culture will produce more Black participants and a broader support system.  Whalum is a shining example of the endless possibilities.

“I feel really blessed to be able to be able to be doing so much work because I swear…I didn’t even do music.  I went to Morehouse and I transferred to New School.  So I was just partying and now to have all this stuff going on it really is something I never…I thought about playing but it was never serious. So now it’s really serious.  I go places and people know me.  This cat just recently walked up to me talking about how he liked my record.  So whether people know it or not, I really am happy to be here.  I’m really happy to be having this stuff going on.  I don’t take it for granted.  I’m really just trying to believe it.  God is good for real.” ♦

Kenneth Whalum III performs tomorrow, June 21 at the Apple Store (Upper West Side) in NYC as part of Black Music Month.  Personnel: Kenneth Whalum (Saxophones), Robert Glasper (piano), Burniss Earl Travis (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums).  Showtime 7pm.