The following review first appeared in the February 2014 edition of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine.
HEROES + MISFITS – Concord Jazz CJA-34353-02 www.concordmusicgroup.com Forever Spring; Wake The Neighbors; #TheProtestor; Vices and Virtues; Forget-Er; Wonderlove; Forever Wonder; Drift; First; Ways of Light
PERSONNEL: Kris Bowers, piano, keyboards; Julia Easterlin, vocals; José James, vocals; Chris Turner, vocals; Casey Benjamin, alto saxophone; Kenneth Whalum III, tenor saxophone, Adam Agati, guitar; Burniss Earl Travis II, bass; Jamire Williams, drums
By Curtis Davenport
Those who run around declaring jazz to be “dead” are often purists; those who want to only hear the music as it was performed 50 years ago or more. And while the strains of swing, bop, modal and even free jazz as it was then aren’t as publicly relevant as they once were, there are a lot of exciting young musicians out there who have heard their elders and hold them in high regard but refuse to force the music to stagnate and yes, “die” in that place. They will play jazz as they hear it. For them, jazz doesn’t have to be “pure”, just good and relevant. One of those young musicians is Kris Bowers. His debut album is Heroes + Misfits.
Bowers is a 24-year-old Los Angeles native who was raised on the “old school” R&B (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, etc.) that was favored by his parents. Like many of his age, he was strongly influenced by the hip-hop of the nineties and the first decade of this century. Unlike many of his age, Bowers was also fascinated by the film music composed by John Williams, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore and others. Though he had been taking classical piano lessons since he was very small, he soon turned his attention to jazz instruction. In high school, Bowers discovered and was inspired by, the solo recordings of Oscar Peterson. Moving to New York to attend Julliard, after high school, Bowers began working on the NYC jazz scene while studying at Julliard and taking private lessons with Eric Reed, Fred Hersch and Kenny Barron. While working on his Masters in Jazz Performance and Film Composition at Julliard, in 2011, Kris Bowers entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He won the competition, which included among its prizes, a recording contract with Concord Records. Heroes + Misfits was born out of that contract.
I’ll tell you up front, if you pick up Heroes + Misfits expecting to hear Bowers play standards in the style of Peterson, Barron or even Eric Reed and your appreciation for jazz goes no further than there, then you are likely to be disappointed. But remember this; Bowers is 24, he grew up with hip-hop, he has also recorded with Jay-Z and Kanye West and toured with José James. My point is this, what is a “standard” to someone over 50 is not going to be a standard to someone half that age.
So what do you get on Heroes + Misfits? There is excellent musicianship, from Bowers and a quintet of creative, forward thinking young musicians, including saxophonists Casey Benjamin (from Robert Glasper’s Band) and Kenneth Whalum III (Kirk’s nephew), drummer Jamire Williams, guitarist Adam Agati and Burniss Earl Travis II on bass. There are guest vocals from José James and others and there are many inspired compositions and compelling musical moments. What does it sound like? The best comparison would be to say that Heroes + Misfits is similar to Robert Glasper’s Black Radio but less commercially oriented. The tracks that caught my attention were “#TheProtestor” inspired by Time Magazine naming of The Protestor as its 2011 Person of The Year. Williams and Travis set a contemporary meets jazz beat and Bowers takes a rich, moving solo as he is pushed by a bit of dissonance from Benjamin’s alto. “Forget-Er” the album’s first single features vocalist Julia Easterlin singing a haunting lead line over her own multi-tracked background vocals, before Bowers and the rhythm section enter a with a commanding statement of their own. “Wonderlove”, a track obviously inspired by Stevie Wonder, is strong modern pop/soul with a Stevie Meets Donny Hathaway vocal from Chris Turner and a beat set by Williams that will remain with you after the song ends. Most impressive are the trio of tracks that close the album “Drift”, the closest to a traditional jazz track features the saxophones, with Kenneth Whalum displaying that big tenor sound that clearly runs in his family, “First” is a brief and wistful piano solo, which sets the stage for “Ways of Light”, a melancholy, reflective vocal feature for José James, who every time that I hear him, comes closer to being the definitive male jazz vocalist of his generation.
So is jazz dead? Absolutely not. Is it taking a different and more viable direction for our time, in the hands of visionary young artists such as Kris Bowers, making music like Heroes + Misfits? I say “Yes” and in the end, those who love jazz will be better for it.