Prodigy Kris Bowers re-created Don Shirley’s complex piano compositions

By Jon Burlingame

Kris Bowers may have had the toughest music gig of anyone working in movies last year. He not only composed the score, he transcribed and played all the Don Shirley music heard in “Green Book” and coached actor Mahershala Ali through his on-set piano performances.

“We looked around for the best jazz pianist in the world,” says director Peter Farrelly, “and his name just kept coming up. We saw him on YouTube, and I was like, ‘Let’s get this guy in here.’ And it all worked out.”

Bowers, who was just 28 at the time, says he “worked for about two or three months” with Ali. Says Bowers, “When we were on set, it was all about the choreography,” referring to Ali’s finger placement on the keys. “He was so intensely focused that he would play it once, make a mistake, start over and then play until he got it right.

“We would meet together just before we shot a scene, and I would play the keyboard so he could watch me. I would make sure that he was comfortable and that it looked as authentic as possible.” The piano performance scenes in the film are a mix of Bowers’ hands and Ali’s.

Even more challenging was re-creating the Don Shirley material — a unique interpretation of standards that was partly classical and partly jazz, performed by an unusual trio of piano, cello and bass.

“To take the technique and dexterity that you need to be a concert pianist and play pieces by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, then play these jazz songs in that kind of way, was kind of mind-blowing,” Bowers says. “I went back to practicing eight or nine hours a day. The music was so difficult; it was the hardest stuff I had to play since college.”

With no sheet music available, Bowers transcribed all the Shirley material, meticulously notating every note, every chord, every musical line.

“It sounds more like written classical pieces than jazz improv,” Bowers explains. “Most of what he did was to take American Songbook pieces and arrange them in very unique ways. All of the Don Shirley performances are re-recordings by myself, a bassist and cellist. We tried to stay as close to the originals as possible.”

As for Bowers’ original dramatic music — realized with a 60-piece orchestra — “we wanted the score to be as different as possible but somehow still fit in this musical world, this combination of jazz and classical influences.

“He was also influenced by Negro spirituals and church hymns,” Bowers points out. “My idea was to create themes that could exist on their own as folk melodies but then to orchestrate them in a way that combined my personal influences and those of Don Shirley — at the end of the day, to represent this American story in a subtle, American-inspired way.”