When most college students return home for winter break, they watch TV in the den and get drunk with high school friends.

Pianist Kris Bowers, a 22-year old-graduate student at Julliard, however, has come home to Los Angeles with some big prizes, and will perform at Catalina Bar & Grill tomorrow night, January 4th. The awards? After winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in September, he now possesses a recording contract and a $25,000 scholarship.

“Last time the Monk competition featured the piano was five years ago,” says Bowers. “I knew a lot of people that were doing it then. All three people that placed I looked up to. I was determined that next time it was piano that I was going to apply myself.”

So Bowers buckled down to perform in front of a judging panel that included piano greats like Ellis Marsalis, Danilo Perez and Herbie Hancock. His subtle command of the instrument — both tasteful and deliberate with little of the flash that can mar a musician his age — beat out the international array of contestants.

“Since the competition I've been having a lot of conversations with Jason Moran,” says Bowers. “He's given me some good advice. He says I should really play in the sound of today, and make sure I'm incorporating that and all the things that are affecting me musically.”

Julliard Jazz Studies director Carl Allen secured Bowers' talents early with an undergraduate scholarship. “The biggest challenge for him will be to keep balance,” says Allen. “What to say yes to and what to say no to. I think if he's got that balance and keeps great mentors close by, he'll do a lot of wonderful things.”

It hasn't all been swing and studies for Bowers — he did a gig with Q-Tip at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and it just so happened that Kanye West was a guest. From that serendipitous meeting, Bowers found himself in the enviable position of playing on a few tracks for West and Jay-Z's ode to obscene wealth Watch the Throne.

For most of his career Bowers has worked as a sideman, picking up gigs with friends and classmates. But a part of the Monk prize is a recording contract for Concord Records, which will put him directly in the spotlight. “I've been trying to write a lot more now that I'm thinking about the album. I'm focusing on forming my music and my musical identity and trying to take make sure I do it the way I want. It's definitely new for me, but exciting.”

For his homecoming show at Catalina's Bowers promises something unexpected. “It's not just going to be jazz standards,” he says. “I'm trying to reflect all the things I'm in to – from indie rock to old school R&B to film scoring. I just want to keep the young people aware of what jazz music sounds like now.”

LA Weekly