Kris Bowers

Jazz shouldn't turn into a museum!

People

At the heart of the “future of audio” are people – inspired individuals who dare to give shape to their creative vision and artistic imagination. Decision makers who prefer to reach their audiences and customers through great audio. Audio lovers who work relentlessly on innovative projects, who redefine and recreate sound experiences that touch the very souls of their listeners. “People” is dedicated to all those musicians, artists, engineers, producers, decision makers, owners and audio designers who fill and shape our world with sensational sound.

Everyone needs a mission. Kris Bowers, a rising star from Los Angeles, wants to meld his jazz with other genres. This has included working with Jay-Z and scoring films. In an interview, he talks about limits and the art of overcoming them.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Kris Bowers
  • Video: Kris Bowers
„I think any genre title is useless anyhow. It's just a name.“

A new wave of jazz is crashing over the US, and Kris Bowers is surfing the break. Born in California but living in New York, Bowers is extremely prolific. In 2011, he won the renowned Thelonius Monk Jazz Piano Competition, but he has long kept busy helping out a variety of fellow musicians. Bowers has recorded with Marcus Miller, José James, Vincent Herring, Ben Williams and Kenneth Whalum III. He has composed pieces for Ludacris, Murs and Q-Tip in addition to the masterful “Watch the Throne" for Jay-Z and Kanye West. Bowers' own debut, "Heroes + Misfits," was released in 2014 by Concord and established him as a unique talent and as a practitioner of eclectic jazz. An interview is overdue.

Kris, have you ever met jazz enthusiasts who are repulsed by the way you move between the genres? I did. And I do, all the time. Even friends of mine approach me and say that I don't play jazz anymore and that I'm not a jazz musician. I think any genre title is useless anyhow. It's just a name. It doesn't tell you anything about the music itself. If someone asks me what I play and I say jazz, it's like I haven't said anything at all. Because for one person that could mean the jazz of the old days and for another person that could mean Kamasi Washington and for a third person that could mean something completely different. You always have people who are very close-minded and think there's only one kind of jazz and it should include these or those characteristics. But if you think about jazz only from a historical perspective, it's going to turn into a museum. I don't want that to happen.

But there must be an explanation for the huge variety of genres you include in your music. It's my background. The music I grew up with was mostly my parents' music, and they listened to all kinds. Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, things like that. On top of that, as a kid I listened to whatever came on the radio. Things like Boyz II Men, Snoop Dogg, Dre, Eminem and Ludacris. Only after I went to high school did I really start listening to jazz.

And all of those influences are present in your music today? Of course they are. I forgot to mention all the film scores I listened to. And just recently, a lot of rock and indie has been added to the catalogue. It's only fair to include all of this in my own music, and not just one style. It's honest to who I am and what my musical identity is.

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers @ Spotify

„One of the guys in the studio heard me and said: 'What are you doing?“

Has the jazz scene as a whole opened up to other genres? It's always been like that. If you look at any point of history, you'll see artists who have been doing that. In the 70s you had Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. In the 50s, it was guys like Lee Morgan and Sonny Clark. They included everything that was hot at the time. Even John Coltrane used to play in army bands and E-bands before he really became John Coltrane. The thing about jazz is that its orgins are very inclusive. It was born from the collisions of different styles – blues, folk, African music, European music, rock, swing. It developed like that. And we're here to continue it.

Among your many interactions with other genres, “Watch the Throne” stands out. Your contribution to the album of Jay-Z and Kanye West went on to become an instant classic. That's pretty cool, but it's the little things I remember about that episode above all else. One time I was playing through some chords and just started adding a couple of notes. I thought it's be all right – adding a few notes won't change the whole chord, right? One of the guys in the studio heard me and said: 'What are you doing? Why are you playing those chords so abstractly?' For me it didn't make any sense at first. But this other artist came from a different musical background and for him it totally made sense. For him it totally changed the sound and the emotion of the chord. Stuff like that made me realize that to everybody and every genre there's is a specific sound. And that sometimes the feeling you get istening to the music is more important than the feeling you get from the lyrics. Or it is at least equally as demanding.

What is it about film scores that fascinates you? You've done a few yourself and also focused on the field in your studies. Whenever I work on a film score, I have to figure out how to transport the emotions with sound. It's a really interesting process and it's really interesting how people react differently to different sounds. I might write a piece and the director says this feels too sad. And then I find out that the only sad thing about it was that it was played in the high register of the piano. If I change that melody to a different instrument and lower it – it's no longer sad! Finding out these small things is really incredible to me.

The dramaturgy of the movie certainly plays a role. It certainly does. I like that, and I can learn from that. Because in jazz it's mostly about how good your technique is, how well you can play and how well you can improvise. Telling a story is not part of the jazz education. But working on a film teaches me how to do that.

Kris Bowers
„In jazz it's mostly about how good your technique is.“

Rumor has it that at one point in your career, you threatened to give up the piano once and for all. I wouldn't call it a career back then, but it's true (laughs). I was still a kid when I came to a point when I wasn't too interested in jazz. Like all kids, I wanted to play football. I even wanted to become a cartoonist back then, that was really my passion. But my parents kept pushing me and kept me going to my music classes, which is something I really appreciate – now. Don't get me wrong, they didn't force me to play. But they tried to make it fun for me.

That obviously paid off. Your debut “Heroes + Misfits” gained critical acclaim from all sides. What are you currently working on? I'm working on my second album, which has no release date yet. Then a few film scores, too. Other projects about dance and visual arts are keeping me busy as well. It's really hard for me to sit still.

Kris Bowers