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Kris Bowers: A Deeper Look into Heroes + Misfits

K. Shackelford BY

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Kris Bowers is a pristine example of what the term prodigy embodies. In 2011, at the tender age of 22, he became the winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. Bowers also received an astute musical education at Julliard School of Music in New York—receiving a Bachelor's degree and Master's degree in Film Scoring and Jazz Performance before reaching the age of 25. Yet Bowers' style is not limited to traditional jazz. It is also shaped by the diverse musical genres he listened to on the radio as a kid, which makes his sound intriguing. He can interpret the latest Pop, R&B and Hip-Hop hits creating a sonically sophisticated mise en scène for listeners.

Earlier this year, Kris Bowers released his debut album Heroes + Misfits on Concord Jazz. The album features an auteurish and innovative mix of young musicians on today's jazz scene such as saxophonist/vocoderist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin, vocalist José James, drummer Jamire Williams, guitarist Adam Agati and other young jazz voices. Heroes + Misfits presents Bowers' compositions which exhibit exquisite and careful blending of sounds and color—provoked by an amalgam of issues surrounding life, love, and politics.

Like many jazz greats such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Bowers is quite intentional about understanding his generation and creating music that is relevant. The title Heroes + Misfits was inspired by his studies on the generational theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe critically acclaimed books, Generations and The Fourth Turning. The Strauss and Howe theory argues four generation types that have a cyclical feature, and expounds upon the popular term "Millennials." Bowers intentionally pulled the concepts of "Heroes" and "Misfits" from his stimulating engagement with Strauss and Howe's theory.

Moreover, many would agree that Bowers is a rising star in the world of film and music composition. His resume includes scoring Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (featuring Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey), and Sandy McLeod's Seeds of Time. Exciting upcoming projects include working with more Hip- Hop artists such as Q-Tip (he worked on Kanye West and Jay Z's Watch The Throne), saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III and scoring a film about NBA Basketball star Kobe Bryant.

All About Jazz: Your album seems to be birthed not only out of your vast musical repertoire but also illuminates a personal cultural critique, particularly, as a result of your engagement with William Strauss and Neil Howe's 1997 book, The Fourth Turning? Tell us about how you discovered Strauss and Howe and how their work is related to the title Heroes + Misfits.

Kris Bowers: A lot of times, I'll be curious about something and I'll find myself going down the Google search "rabbit hole." Particularly, I was curious about how generations get their names. For example, why are we the "Millennial" generation or why is there one called Generation X? I was interested in how these names were created and wondered if there were any other names for my generation besides the "Millennials." In my research, I stumbled upon the Strauss and Howe theory.

First of all, the cyclical thing is interesting. According to the Strauss-Howe theory, certain aspects of culture, like the economy and politics, are all cyclical and these factors affect the growth and maturation of each generation. So the Strauss-Howe theory also presented that my generation was the 'Hero' generation. Thus, I thought it was very fitting that at the same time I was doing this research, Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street was happening. In addition, people were protesting about Trayvon Martin. I felt like my generation, for the first time in a while, was specifically expressing the power of their "voice" like young people during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, or other important movements after that. So it was very fitting.

AAJ: I read in one place that you wanted your generation to understand the unlimited possibilities that can emerge from their life, their voice. I say this because you don't place limits on yourself. Everybody talks about how you are able to play anything. One person even said that your knowledge of music is "encyclopedic." Your music is also ensconced with a psycho-social consciousness that engages life, love and politics. So at what particular point did you say that I'm not going to be constrained by just one genre of music? How has that benefitted you?

KB: On some level, I've always felt that way. I had a period in high school where I was one of those "traditionalist" as far as jazz is concerned. I felt like if it didn't "swing" it wasn't jazz. I definitely thought that way for a period in high school but then I had to remind myself that we are in the 21st century. I grew up listening to a lot of diverse musical styles, just as much or arguably more than jazz. I felt it was important to be true to that reality and to not feel like I was letting jazz and the genre down by being open to other styles of music. When I got to college, I started playing with other musicians who played different genres of music and I started having fun with other styles, developing a respect for them. I feel like a lot of jazz musicians don't have respect for more contemporary stuff. They think it's easier to play. Yet, once I realized these styles were not easier and that each has its own difficulties—I began to see that being open to other music styles can only help you. Moreover, they can help each other the more you get good at them.

AAJ: The album is terribly thoughtful, from the compositions, to the poetry in the digital booklet and even the choice of musicians, many who you've stated as close and respected friends. Together, the groove is completely anodynic from track 1 to finish. Tell us more about who is on your album and what they brought to the table?

KB: The instrumentalists are Casey Benjamin, Adam Agati, Burniss Earl Travis, II, and Jamire Williams. The vocalists are Julia Easterlin, José James, Christopher Turner and Brian Bender who helped me mix it and co-produce it. I got each of them because not only are they, like you said, some of my best friends but they also are some of my favorite young players or musicians. I have played and worked with them in a number of capacities, so it's kind of great to be able to know their playing so well. When I was writing for the album, I could write specifically for them. I would write something that I know I didn't have to explain for them to do. You know? For example, working with Adam Agati was great. When we wrote songs together, he was extremely specific on what type of guitar sounds he was going to use, how to create those sounds, and do his best to make his voice come across. People like Burniss Earl Travis and Jamire Williams are gifted at letting grooves go to certain places, and they play together all the time----so they brought something pretty undeniable to the table. I knew everybody was able to do what they do best on this album.

AAJ: Also, I think that everyone on your album represents a type of musical "Hero" and "Misfit" in a sense—Jamire, Burniss, Casey Julia, and the others—which is really beautiful. Would you say yes or no?

KB: Definitely yes. I feel like they are each already, could be, or are going to be bandleaders themselves. They each very much pursue their own voice and artistic vision and I feel like, unfortunately, a lot of musicians of my generation do not have that gift. A lot of people are taught to be "hirable" and taught to do something that is going to get you a gig and get you paid. So some musicians are just like, "Oh, Let me just read this chart and play this exactly like it's written." And that's it. But those that I chose on this album have such a powerful voice, and they are not afraid to do things their way. They bring that to every musical situation that they are in and to their own music. So they are definitely people that I would consider to be "Heros" and yet "Misfits"—because they choose not to fit in, which I like.

AAJ: Theologian P.T Forsyth notes that music and poetry is "the least material of the arts," which is birthed out of our emotions and in a sense frees us from the constraints of materialism. And through the beautifully peculiar textures found within the vocal aesthetics of Jose James, Chris Turner, Jeremy Harris and Julia Easterlin, this liberation happens. And for Jeremy Harris, I mean his poetry writing. Why these artists? And what convinced you that your conceptions and ideas couldn't be made through a solely non-lyrical album?

KB: They are my favorite singers because they do have very unique and specific qualities to their vocal style. They are not vocalists where if one is not available, I can just call the next one to fulfill the role. Moreover, Julia and Jose and I wrote a lot of songs together. Consequently, this helped to bring their musical vision to the album because they are both songwriters as well.

As far as the lyrics are concerned, I feel like there's a more immediate and visceral reaction that humans get from hearing another human voice. I think that's proven by the fact that you can listen to a Brazilian song and not know any Portuguese—but feel what that person is feeling and talking about. In this way, people listen to music in a language they have never heard before and enjoy it. It's not so much the same with instrumental music. As we find with jazz artists, a lot of people get lost with instrumental music or they get bored. So I feel like there is something special about the human voice that keeps us tied to it. I think it's very primitive.

AAJ: Was there a preconceived notion of how you wanted to engage your audience?

KB: I feel like my audience, fortunately, is developing into what I always hoped it would be. When I set out to start making music, as both a sideman and a leader, I decided that I wanted to play for and with people in my generation just because I wanted to be like my favorite artists before me. They were relevant. Like in the jazz landscape, you look at Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett—all of these musicians were very relevant to people in their generation because they (intentionally) wanted to be. So people in their generation were "in" to them, and I feel like that's how they had such great careers and longevity. I didn't want to play a style of music that would fit in concert halls with people who were 60 years of age and up. Although, I have nothing against that, I think that experience is important as well. That's just what I didn't want to do. So I wanted to create music that I hoped people in my generation, and close to my generation, would find what they were looking for.

AAJ: Yeah, I get that. So based upon the last three years, how would you describe your musical audience? Who is at your gigs?

KB: Recently, it was my first time playing in San Jose as a bandleader and they moved us to a smaller venue. I was supposed to be playing on the same bill as Erykah Badu and she cancelled. We had full capacity and there were 50 or so people they had to turn away. Everybody was standing up. The ages were from a boy who was 12 years there with his parents—to much older people. The main chunk of the audience was probably in their early twenties to mid-thirties. It was really cool because it was people there that are into indie rock, hip-hop and grew up with those styles of music, but have a palette for something a little bit more intricate—because we were playing instrumental music that we were soloing and improvising. They could relate to the grooves—and then their curiosity for this draws them to our stuff.

AAJ: I've always seen the jazz musician as a historian, and your decision to put a hashtag in front of your work entitled "#TheProtestor" kind of documents the hashtag phenomenon of the past several years which I thought was kind of brilliant. Social media has really become a serious space for social advocacy. However, social media also is a symptom of metaphysical loneliness, which I gleaned from Harris' poem on your webpage and in your digital booklet. He seems to point out that our existence is tough and we "lust for light and love." What are your thoughts on this?

KB: Yeah, I was talking with someone about this the other day. First of all, it's interesting that the most popular websites are ones that connect people with other people, unlike Pinterest—where it's more self-serving, more like an online journal and there is not much interaction. Those sites are not as popular as a Facebook or Twitter where you actually interact with people. These sites lead us to do things in solitude and make us a lonelier generation. It seems like we still long for some type of connection which is interesting.

The other thing is that there is a danger to the way that we protest things and the way that we participate with social justice. For example, for a better quality of life you have to have a sense of what it feels like not to have that. Unfortunately, a lot of people, especially in the States, are very comfortable and nothing really threatens our way of life. Because of that, it's very easy to participate in social justice on a very surface level.

AAJ: Yes!

KB: I mean you can Tweet hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and feel like you did something even though it really didn't do anything.

AAJ: Sure, people are not going to Nigeria or join a volunteer militia, no, no, no, but we'll hashtag it.

KB: Yeah, a lot of people do it to be trendy as opposed to actually caring about something. However, I will say that there is another side to that argument. The more people that 'hashtag' and talk about these issues, the more that the 'powers that be' or the people that have the authority to make some type of change will see that. So it's good to have more numbers. Yet, at the same time, people have to really know the why behind their protests.

For example, Occupy Wall Street fizzled out because you had many people into that issue because it was trendy to be in to it—not because they were actually invested in it. You know? They didn't have anything to worry about on a deep level. For instance, at any point they could stop protesting and go back to their jobs and way of life without anything having changed. So it's not like we're in the Middle East, Palestine or in these places where everyday life can be threatened. But here (in the States) it's not like everyday life will be threatened because we spoke out an issue. People can just hashtag something and call it a day.

AAJ: Yes, absolutely, and when you wrote "#TheProtestor" what were some of the musical colors and textures that you had to have to make that statement about protesting and what it means to be a protestor. And I think you got that idea from Time Magazine, is that right?

KB: Yes, their person of the year was The Protestor for 2011. When I was writing it, texturally, the saxophones and the way that Brian Bender and I mixed them was very important. I wanted them to have as much as a vocal quality as possible. I also wanted the sound to be very warm and soulful, yet have a lot of pain behind them.

AAJ: And I felt that.

KB: Thank you. As we discussed before, with the vocal aspect I wanted to have some type of voice on there, even though it's just Chris Turner singing this chant over and over again. Yet, I felt he could represent that idea wholly.

AAJ: And what was your most favorite and memorable moment when recording Heroes + Misfits? For example, was there any particular significant moment such as recording or working through a song, or just maybe an 'aha' or musical moment that stood out?

KB: I think working on "Forget-er" was probably most special. It is a piece that Julia Easterlin and I wrote. I pretty much wrote the whole album while I was on the road with Marcus Miller. So for a lot of it, I wasn't in the room with all of the musicians on the album until a couple of days before the recording session. Actually, Adam, the guitarist, who was also on the road with Marcus and I, was the only person I was with frequently and able to work things out with in person. Because of being on that tour, I was writing the song via email with Julia. So I would send her a part and she would send me a part back. We came up with the first half of the song, agreeing that we would just see what would happen once we got with everybody.

In the rehearsal, we were working through it—yet it wasn't really working out. We were trying to figure out what the second half would be., etc. Then, all of a sudden, we came up with an idea, tried it out, and it seemed like it would really work. We tried it in the studio—and maybe the second or third time, we decided that was the take. So it all came about really 'organically' which is the opposite of how I go about composing something. I tend to be very detailed and write everything out specifically. Even the arcs and low points in my pieces are very deliberate. So having a song on the album where those things happened 'organically' was a lot of fun.

AAJ: There's some theological jargon in those poems that Jeremy Harris wrote for Heroes + Misfits, featured on your website and in the digital booklet. Now you may not call your album spiritual, but do you think there is a connection between jazz and spirituality?

KB: Yes, I think so. I think on some level my album might be because I'm a very spiritual person and I feel like my favorite artists are very spiritual. I also feel like there is something to be said about music that is played for a higher purpose. In jazz, you have a lot of people who get connected to the technicalities of what they're doing, their dexterity, or different things that are just technical. So I feel like the music that lasts the longest is very connected to some spiritual quality. Whether that be a specific religious idea, or just playing for a higher reason than the notes that you are playing. I think also because jazz is an improvisatory music, it's very connected to spirituality because you are making something up in the moment. If you're doing that for a larger reason then I feel like it's going to enhance what it is that you're doing in a spiritual way.

AAJ: You've recently graduated with a Masters in Jazz Performance and Film Scoring from Juilliard in 2012. You also scored two great films Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (featuring Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey), and Sandy McLeod's Seeds of Time which is a film about food, climate change, and seeds. Tell us about composing for Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me?

KB: Composing for Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me was a little bit easier. She is an incredible vocalist. A lot of the music in the film is her own music. My music was very incidental—just kind of getting us from transitions. But there were moments that she was addressing very serious things. She was realizing that it was getting towards the end of her life. Unfortunately, she just passed. Elaine Stritch was dealing with very real issues because she was an alcoholic at her age, diabetic, and she lived hard. She definitely had moments where she was very vulnerable. In the film, she showed me a lot about life and taught me a lot about dealing with circumstances. So having to create music to underscore that situation was interesting to convey because at that time she hadn't passed away. If she wasn't alive, I don't know if we would have approached it differently. Essentially, it wasn't like she was dying or we were remembering this person. So there wasn't a lot of sadness when writing. She was very much alive. She was 89.

AAJ: What drew her to you? There is such a vast age difference? Why not an older composer?

KB: Her music was from the American songbook and I think part of the reason why they decided to use me is because they knew me as a jazz pianist. She actually came to my senior recital at Julliard and enjoyed herself because I played a couple of jazz standards that she grew up listening to and singing. So I think we had a connection because of that traditional jazz songbook.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorite film composers?

KB: Yea, I really like classic people like Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer and newer people like Antonio Pinto and Cliff Martinez. I also like some of the current films that use contemporary artists like Trent Reznor and the score he did for the film The Social Network, and Jonny Greenwood who did the music for There Will Be Blood. So those are definitely a few of my favorites.

AAJ: What is some advice that you would give to young jazz musicians, younger than you, who look up to you and want to start serious careers in jazz?

KB: A couple of things. First of all, pursue what it is you want to do like a 1000 + 10 percent. I don't believe in plan B, just because whenever you have something to fall back on you are going to fall back on it. So especially when we are young, we have the luxury of being able to try our hardest and possibly fail at something. For example, I'm very new at being a bandleader and I might not be successful at that. It might just be a money pit that I have to eventually stop doing. But I'm not going to have any other plans just in case that happens. I feel like that will affect how hard I try. That's the first thing. The other thing is to be 100% honest with who you are as a musician. Music education focuses so much on the history and imitating the greats, which is important on some level, but not to the point that it extinguishes a young musician's creative fire. Be honest to what you enjoy and don't be afraid to express that when you are in situations that might not be as supportive of that idea.

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