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Kris Bowers Serves Double-Duty as ‘Green Book’ Music Maestro

The year’s most complex music assignment may have been Kris Bowers’ work on “Green Book.” He not only composed the score, he transcribed and played all of pianist Don Shirley’s original 1960s recordings, and he had to teach Mahershala Ali how to be a convincing pianist.

Green Book” is the fact-based story about African-American artist Shirley’s early-1960s tour of the South with his white driver-bodyguard. Bowers (composer of TV’s “Dear White People”) was hired before shooting. “I would play the keyboard in front of Mahershala, so he could watch me. I would make sure that he was in the right spot, that he was as comfortable as possible, and that it looked as authentic as it could,” Bowers says.

Bowers was wowed by Shirley’s virtuosic performances. “To take the technique and dexterity that you need to be a concert pianist, and then play these jazz songs in that way, was mind-blowing,” he says. “I went back to practicing eight or nine hours a day, the music was so difficult.”

He duplicated Shirley’s unusual trio (piano, bass, cello) for the music we see and hear on the tour. He moved in a slightly different direction for the score, drawing on spirituals and church hymns for inspiration “to represent this American story in a very subtly American way,” while still using piano and cello for the characters played by Viggo Mortensen and Ali, respectively.

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