He was still 22 when he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition last fall. And while his performance garnered fans in the panel of judges, all illustrious jazz pianists, as well as the also-attending Aretha Franklin, it was hardly the first time the pianism of Kris Bowers turned heads. From gigging around New York to his studies at Juilliard, Bowers has been placing his masterful playing before audiences of all stripes for years now. Next month he’ll give his Masters recital and tour with composer and usually-bassist Marcus Miller. Somewhere in between, Bowers manages to develop campusounds.com, a grass-roots outlet he co-founded to broadcast college scenes and composers, and plan for his debut album, expected on Concord Jazz in 2013.
1. You played with [producer/rapper] Q-Tip at last year’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. How did you two connect?
A friend of mine actually recommended me for the gig with Q-Tip, and it just so happened that he had all these special guests, like Kanye West, [roots MC] Black Thought. At that time, Q-Tip was working on a couple of tracks for Watch the Throne. It was pretty much finished—I think they had a wrap party the night before the festival. But they wanted to add a couple things and in the next couple days they asked me, so I spent some time with Kanye, Q-Tip and Pharrell.
2. How have these high-profile competitions and collaborations developed your approach as an entertainer?
Definitely in thinking on a larger scale. In the jazz world we’re so used to being told that we’re only going to make a certain amount of money or we’re only going to play for a certain amount of people. Being around those artists—they’re more accessible and popular—but they still have a different mindset. They’re always thinking of ways to reach out to more people. Kanye and Jay-Z weren’t relying on the fact that they are who they are. After our sessions, Kanye and Q-Tip would talk for a long time about ways they could publicize the record and approach the tour—what they could do to stay new, stay current. It’s a great mindset to have, so we’re trying to bring that into our own music world, or whatever you want to call it.
3. Has the recognition altered your expectations for your first album? Do you ever wish the spotlight were less glaring?
I was talking to [bassist and fellow Monk Competition winner] Ben Williams about this. He won a couple years ago and he’s a good friend of mine. We were talking about how it seems like every gig we play it feels like the entire audience is, “Did this guy really deserve to win the Monk contest?” [laughs] as if they’re waiting to hear us mess up. But with the Concord album I’m just trying to figure out how to be as honest as possible with my music without people getting into judgment about whether or not I’m considered a jazz musician. I feel my music comes from that and is informed by it, but I’m not going to make a straight-ahead album. So I’m worried a lot of old-school jazz heads are going to feel like I can’t play, but hopefully I’ll find a way to show that while maintaining my own personal musicianship.
4. How is the writing going? Do you just bring chord changes to the group, or a fully written head? How collaborative is it?
It’s a bit of both. Some of the guys I’ve been playing with have such unique, creative ideas that I’ll bring in a tune that to me is already kind of finished, but they’ll suggest something that adds to it and that becomes part of the arrangement. The first thing is figuring out the theme of the album and then basing the compositions on that so that everything is a collective idea.
5. Are you looking to feature the sextet you’ve played with lately, or float in featured guests?
We have a few vocalists lined up to do guest spots. I’m still trying to figure out the instrumentation. There’ll definitely be a couple of horn players but they might not play on the whole thing. I want to have some strings but not in a traditional way—more modern film score-type stuff, some synths.
6. You’ve mentioned your interest in scoring movies before, and your piece “Hope” is rather filmic in scope. Which composers or soundtracks have most impacted your sensibilities along that front?
The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore, his score for Eastern Promises is pretty great; John Williams, from Star Wars to Memoirs of a Geisha; Quincy Jones and The Color Purple; more recently, Michael Giacchino for The Incredibles and Ratatouille; oh and also Dario Marianelli, who did Atonement. I’ve always found the storytelling aspect of film scoring—how you have to translate a certain emotion or idea through music, how much power the music has: that’s something that’s always interested me.
7. How about your top-three favorite albums?
Definitely the Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys live album. Stevie Wonder, probably Songs in the Key of Life. I’d have to think about the third one, probably either Herbie or Miles. I’ll say Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles.
8. What’s your favorite place to play?
I like The Jazz Gallery and Jazz Standard because I like the feeling there and that they usually bring in younger artists. I’m trying to get into different types of venues that aren’t traditional jazz venues, which I feel a lot of people are. I’ve been playing with [jazz crooner] Jose James and whenever we go on tour we’re playing for a bunch of young people and they’re standing, right in front of us. I like that feeling so much more, so I’m trying to figure out the best venues in New York that have that kind of vibe, like Rockwood Music Hall or Mercury Lounge.
9. You’ve been playing since you were four. What’s your advice for aspiring musicians or songwriters who might think there’s a cutoff point or age after which it’s too late to pick up an instrument and approach music seriously?
I don’t think there’s a rule against starting too late, as long as you have a certain passion for it—to really dedicate your life to it—then there’s never a too late. Just be honest to who you are and your story; people can relate to that. It always seems real when you’re telling a story about something you’ve experienced or something that’s close to your heart. It’s going to come through the music.
10. Why did you choose BMI?
Well the first reason was because Terence Blanchard was affiliated. His band is probably one of my favorites in the jazz world today—and he’s also a great film composer. I went out to lunch with Pat Cook, the head of the Jazz/Musical Theatre division [at BMI], and they told me about the history and how [the other performing rights organization] in the beginning kind of frowned upon jazz and composers of color. It made me feel better about choosing BMI—they’ve always been about the outcast.