Sunday, March 1, 2015

APA's Jazz Fellowship Awards: The last concert in the Premiere Series upholds the quality of the finalist field

The nearly season-long buildup toward the selection of the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz has no better a guarantee of tension and pleasure than the Premiere Series.  That trio gig at the Jazz Kitchen is the high point in the brief residency each of five finalists selected by the American Pianists Association's preliminary jury (of which I was honored to be a member) has in town.

Kris Bowers has an engaging talent for drawing on related genres.
With the appearance of Kris Bowers Saturday night at the Kitchen, which was filled to capacity, the series is complete. Now everyone has to wait till the semifinals March 27 at the Northside club/eatery and the finals at Hilbert Circle Theatre the following evening to learn which of the young pianists will get the inestimable career boost the fellowship provides to its quadrennial recipient.

In common with his fellow contestants, Bowers enjoyed the excellent services of local musicians Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums, to put across his ideas and reinforce his grooves.

The Los Angeles native has already launched a professional career. His recognition includes first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition three years ago last September.

At the Jazz Kitchen, he displayed a pronounced feeling for melody, something which his receptivity to pop music doubtless encourages. His original compositions carry this out: "Selah" has a peaceful theme that, during the composer's solo, was flecked with ornamentation that could suddenly turn incisive without impairing the performance's unity.

He likes to explore a wide dynamic range, as evidenced by another original, "Vices and Virtues." He has a gift for making accented notes consistent with their surroundings. A variety of accent volume is missing in many jazz pianists' performances; with Bowers, it's part of his expressive palette.

Confident enough to recede into the background and fashion accompaniments of quiet urgency, he gave quite a bit of solo space to Tucker and clearly inspired Phelps, who in any case never hogs the bandstand, to vary timbre and dynamics throughout the program. The drummer, well-known for sensitivity to the musicians he shares the stage with, matched Bowers' rhythmic aplomb with his own: Phelps even knows how to accent rests when he's of a mind to.

In Bowers' almost prayerful "Hope," Tucker took his best solo of the set, and Phelps was marvelous throughout, focusing on subtle brushwork.  He sometimes rubbed up the nap on that texture by exchanging the brush for the stick in his right hand, sounding equally delicate but getting that extra cymbal-edge ping when he felt it was called for.

Bowers seems to know the jazz piano tradition, yet he's not likely to exhibit his knowledge blatantly.  He evoked the quirky rhythmic knots in Thelonious Monk's compositions without aping Monk's style in the vivid unaccompanied medley with which he ended the set. In his earlier unaccompanied outing, he both reharmonized and re-rhythmized (there's a neologism for you!) Juan Tizol's signature contribution to the Duke Ellington songbook, "Caravan."

Sounding rootsy and up-to-date at the same time, Bowers and his bandmates made the most of a couple of his inspirations from pop music, "The Spirit" and "Gangsta."  Whenever the pianist dug into a riff or a motif, he never seemed trapped in it. A pianist who can dial back such intensity without seeming to pad or woolgather is making a pretty fair bid to hold the public's attention indefinitely — no matter what the result on March 28.