From Argentine tango to a collaboration with Tech N9ne, meet Kansas City’s in-demand jazz pianist, musical prodigy and composer Mark Lowrey.
photo by Jenny Wheat
If you’ve picked up a flier for live music or frequented a restaurant around town, chances are you’ve heard of — or been entranced by the sounds of — jazz pianist and composer Mark Lowrey. A staple in the Kansas City jazz music scene, Lowrey has made a name for himself with his versatility, command of the piano and sound that transcends genres.
Though primarily known as a jazz musician, the Kansas City-born, Kansas City-bred artist’s résumé includes various local and national trios and ensembles, including Argentine tango ensemble Tango Lorca, renowned jazz outfit the Lonnie McFadden Quartet, folk/world group the Barclay Martin Ensemble, and Afro-Cuban ensemble the La Fonda Allstars. His live albums include Live at Jardine’s and the Kickstarter-funded love songs to KC, 18th Street Tangos. He’s dabbled in hip-hop with the experimental free jazz and freestyle hip-hop series called “Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop,” performed in a Radiohead concert tribute and played piano on “Dyin’ Flyin’” for Tech N9ne’s album Special Effects.
In his latest musical contribution, Waltzes and Consolations, Lowrey has enlisted the talents of drummer Sam Wisman and bassist Karl McComas-Riechl to form modern jazz outfit the Mark Lowrey Trio. Recorded live at the historic Majestic Restaurant in 2014, Waltzes and Consolations is a complex and engulfing album. Described by Lowrey as an impressionistic record, it navigates a myriad of sounds, from original compositions written by Lowrey and an arrangement of French pianist Erik Satie’s short and atmospheric three-piece Gymnopèdies, to a reimagining of alternative singer Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars.”
435 Magazine sat down with the jazz maestro to discuss music, inspiration and what’s up next.
435 Magazine: How did you get into playing the piano?
Mark Lowrey: I started when I was 7. Our family had a piano. My older sister took lessons, and she would leave to go off to cheerleading practice, and I would go up to the piano and try to sound like what she would sound like. I started playing by ear, and then I was able to take lessons with the lady in the neighborhood. From an early age, fourth grade, my best friend’s brother exposed me to a lot of heavy music. He had me listen to Tori Amos, Parliament Funkadelic and the musical Chess. He dropped some really weird stuff on me, and I fell in love with it. In the fifth grade I started playing the violin, which I detested. I just didn’t really feel it; the piano has always had a stronger connection to me.
435: What kind of piano do you have at home?
ML: I still have the first piano that I played on when I was a kid. It’s an old Young Chang upright. I try not to be too particular with pianos because if you’re in Michigan or Kansas or wherever, whatever the piano is, that’s what it is. I know that my piano doesn’t have the best action. It doesn’t have the best tone, and it’s got broken keys. It’s all dinged up and the sustain pedal sometimes doesn’t work, but I love it.
435: How’d you get into jazz?
ML: Dr. David Aaberg, he’s the professor of jazz studies at UCM [University of Central Missouri]. He’s a really fantastic trumpet player and pianist, and he was really understanding of my young craziness and really methodical. Through studying with him for just one semester, I got a really good grasp on diatonic tonality, the modes. He helped me get an intellectual understanding of Western theory of music, at least basic Western theory. When you can understand something in multiple ways, then you really get it. Whenever I study something I end up liking it more. I don’t want to sound like a jazz snob, but I think my palate became a little bit more refined. I used to listen to lots of Phish and jam bands like that, which I still have nostalgia for. I kind of drifted away from that and learned more about theory. Then I got really obsessed with some of the great pianists: Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett. Brad Mehldau is probably my biggest modern inspiration for jazz piano. I just really had an unconventional coming into music. But this is the best city to grow up in to be a jazz musician. It’s affordable to live here, and there’s so much [talent], especially in the last 10 years, the last five years.
Mark Lowrey plays at the Majestic
435: Where’s your favorite place to play?
ML: The Majestic because the guy who plays on Fridays and Saturdays is this piano player from Holland named Bram Wijnands. I’ve taken a few lessons from him back in the day, and he is a master stride piano player. That’s old-school — Fats Waller, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum are the masters of stride. They let us play however we want to play, and we get weird sometimes, or sometimes we’ll just be really old-school. We’re just trying to make people happy, but we’re not trying to fit into a box there.
435: What are your favorite pieces to play?
ML: I’ve been writing a lot more lately. I was able to take a residency through escape2create.org, and that was one of the coolest things I was able to do. Have you seen the movie The Truman Show? This town, Seaside, Florida, that’s where they filmed that movie because it was all designed by one urban planner and one architectural style so everything’s really matchy. It felt like I was in The Truman Show for a whole month. It was just what I needed. They gave us a little stipend for food, gave us free housing, and I just got to sit on the beach and write music all day. I used to be really afraid of writing because philosophically the idea of permanence is weird to me in music — I base my life around improvisation.
I really like to do my stuff with my trio because it’s getting away from the standard jazz repertoire. There’s like these 400 or 500 songs that everybody knows. Everybody does them differently, but it’s nice to be able to not always take from that pool.
435: What inspires your compositions?
ML: I’ve thought about this a lot, and I still don’t know. I’m really impressed when someone can write a song about a specific thing. I’ve only felt like I’ve been successful at that a few times. Most of my compositions are pretty abstract emotions. My girlfriend wants me to write a song for her, but I just haven’t done it yet because I can’t lie about it. I don’t write lyrics, but when I write her a song, I want it to really be about our love and not just a pretty song that’s like, “Hey, this is for you.” It’s got to be real. On this record, there’s a piece that I wrote in Florida called “Consolation for Leonard.” Leonard Kennedy was a guy who had seen me play at least a couple hundred times since I was younger. And he was always really cool. When I was a punk and I couldn’t play and I was doing the jam sessions, he’d always say something nice like, “You’re getting there. You’re gonna get it.” He wasn’t a musician; he just liked to go out to the clubs. But he passed away the November before I left for Seaside. I was thinking about Franz Liszt, who wrote these really short, classical solo piano pieces called the Consolations. They’re easy to play; they’re really chilled out. They were meant to console either the listener or the player, and I really liked the idea of it. It’s almost like old-school musical therapy to me. So I wanted to write a song that was about healing or telling someone that it’s OK. That was “Consolation for Leonard.”
435: What do you like you do in your free time?
ML: My favorite thing to do is to hang out with my family, my girlfriend and her daughter. She is fantastic. Both of them changed my life a lot. I used to be crazier, stay out later. Aside from doing stuff with them, I like to read, but to be honest, I like to play video games, watch Netflix and drink wine on the couch. I just got a record player for Christmas last year, and I just started buying records. I’ve got like 15. It makes listening to music more of a ritual.
435: What’s next for you?
ML: That’s the thing I’m most excited about. Michael Corvino [executive chef of The American] and Shay Estes who’s the musical director of The American Restaurant, let me start this music series there. It’s every Friday from 6:30 to 10 p.m., and they let me do whatever I want to do. I’m trying to do unconventional things. There’s this new-to-Kansas-City musician named Nanny Assis. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and he’s the real deal, a great Brazilian musician. So I’m playing some with him. I don’t have a date for it yet, but Eddie Moore and I are going to do a piano duet one day; one piano, four hands. I want to get some people together and do some tango music because it’s been a long time since I’ve done that in front of people. I’m trying to make it different every week. It’s really fun. It’s a pretty chilled- out lounge. But we’re also trying to change the idea that people have about The American. Because it’s not like the ‘80s where it’s like, “You better not come in unless you’re wearing a really nice suit and you’re ready to spend $300.” Now you can come in in slacks and have a beer. It’s for everybody now.
Catch Mark Lowrey with the Barclay Martin Ensemble on Jan. 19 at The Living Room for a benefit concert for his charity, The Wash Project, which benefits children in Mali. For more information, including weekly performances, visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/Mark-Lowrey-