At 25, Kris Bowers is rather expected to infuse his jazz pianism with the hip-hop and R&B he grew up with. And indeed, his quartet set at Bohemian Caverns on Friday night was anything but straight-ahead jazz. But Bowers’s taste and knowledge run deeper than his childhood; so convincing were the heavy funk, quiet storm and even modern rock stylings in the music that this writer was moved to Google Bowers’s age in the middle of the set. Surely, it seemed, this was a child of the ’80s.
That was a hard assumption to avoid with “Wake the Neighbors,” the opener. The pounding pulse of drummer Corey Fonville and bassist Russell Hall, combined with the bright colors of Adam Agati’s distorted guitar and Bowers’s synthesized noodling, evoked the sounds of rock’s new wave, circa 1982; when Bowers switched to acoustic piano chords, they were in voicings that then-star Joe Jackson might have used. And the keyboardist was just getting started. The next number, “Vices and Virtues,” was a dark, sexy crawl, illuminated by single-note lines from Agati that recalled the mid-’80s “guitar god” boom. A few tunes later, guest vocalist Chris Turner took the stage to sing Bowers’s “WonderLove.” The song’s lyrics were dominated by both those words, but they had a double meaning in this overt pastiche of Stevie Wonder in his prime.
All of the pieces were rich with the sounds of their respective styles, but the leader lent them strong perceptions as well. When improvising, Bowers kept his footing in the jazz tradition; on “Vices and Virtues,” he played moody, suggestive Fender Rhodes lines with a distinctive hopping rhythm. Turning back to the piano for his more contemporary “#TheProtester,” he erupted with clumps of single notes and chords that rang with post-bop complexity (and more melody than the actual written melody). And, while Turner’s tune “There’s No Way” veered into quiet storm territory, Bowers laid out chord changes that were thoroughbred jazz. The latter also employed a novel experiment: Agati’s guitar and Turner’s vocal delivery were noticeably (if only slightly) faster than Bowers, Hall and Fonville, creating cross-tempo tension. It could only happen via a jazz conception of flexible time.
Good as the performance was, though, there were flaws, many involving drummer Fonville. He relied heavily on stock jazz-fusion patterns — for instance, the much-abused “accented three” on the closing “Forever Spring.” Bowers also made an unfortunate choice in “Wake the Neighbors” to solo, acoustically, against a thunderous Fonville assault. It was barely audible two tables away from the stage; surely it was lost to those in the back of the room.
On the other hand, when Fonville (and the ensemble) fell away for a sweet Bowers-Turner duo on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” tears were visible throughout the room. It was a genuinely transcendent moment.
West is a freelance writer.