When pianist Kris Bowers entered Ginny’s Supper Club on a Saturday night in December, he walked in a blessed man. He’s featured on Jose James’ highly anticipated No Beginning No End album, was selected to play on the super group project Next Collective, was hand-picked by Aretha Franklin herself to play for her not once, but twice and contributed to Marcus Miller’s critically acclaimed Renaissance album and its subsequent tour. It is that latter association that speaks to his extraordinary blessing. Outside of being prominently featured with Miller and his young, flashy ensemble, he was able to escape when a bus crash in Europe nearly killed him, Miller and his band mates. Not only did he get out alive, but not even a month later, he’s in Harlem to showcase original material to his growing audience.
During the days leading up to the date, Bowers assembled a band to record his debut LP. And while his new album won’t be released until late summer 2013, he was gracious enough to give the crowd of beautiful people at Ginny’s Supper Club his taste of what he’s been working on, and it pleased their palettes just as much as Ginny’s delicious chicken and waffles or deviled eggs. Ginny’s, in association with Wax Poetics, has played host to an increasingly common list of A-listers, including Christian Scott’s Quintet, legendary flautist Bobby Humphrey and the great Roy Ayers. With Bowers’ appearance, the basement club below the popular Red Rooster is fast emerging as the go-to spot for great music uptown.
Bowers began the evening with a somber, but hopeful improvisation – a dirge for the young victims of the recent Sandy Hook tragedy. After the heartfelt solo, he was joined by the band, two from the aforementioned recording sessions; bassist Burniss Travis, and saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III. Drummer Nate Smith rounded out the crew, and together, they made Jazz that’s radio-ready and soaked in the blues. “Disasters”, a Bowers original, was a brooding piece of opera, with Travis and Smith giving it some rhythmic bite. The piano and Rhodes work of Bowers gave the songs a fleeting gospel undertone, adding a denser anchor to the bands bluesy approach.
The set list of ominous balladry and mid-tempo grooves provided a soothing atmosphere to Ginny’s, that is, until Bowers threw the Supper Club attendees a 90 mph curveball…with a Britney Spears cover! When he announced his intentions to cover the pop diva’s hit “Toxic”, the venue filled with pseudo-condescending chuckles. However, when singer Julia Easterlin hit the stage and Smith laid down a deft, quirky beat that sounded more like Timbaland than Tony Williams, the crowd was never more in-tuned with the stage. Putting the song over the top was special guest saxophonist, and current Robert Glasper Experiment front man, Casey Benjamin. The earnest power he lent to “Toxic” is the same he applied when he and Whalum went toe-to-toe on set closer “The Protestor”, another dynamic Bowers composition that exuded justifiable resentment and fire.
To some, Kris Bowers has become a go-to phenom for many talented names, but his exultant night in Harlem serves as proof that he’s ready to get off the side [man] lines and get under center [stage].
By Matthew Allen