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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.
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