DMV Jazz Bassist Kris Funn Talks Writing for “Bars and Measures”
February 9, 2023 @ 12:05pm
You can find Kris Funn’s fingerprints all over the jazz world, and not just in the DMV region. He toured for years with modern saxophone maestro Kenny Garrett, was an integral part of trumpeter Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah’s (formerly known as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah) genre-blurring band – during which time Funn also had an original song show up in a Hennessy commercial – and now tours behind prodigy pianist Joey Alexander. He’s also led one of the most celebrated jazz trios in the region.
Now he’s dipping into the theater world – a passion shared by his wife, the celebrated actress, director and playwright Paige Hernandez-Funn – composing an original score for Mosaic Theater Company’s staging of “Bars and Measures,” which runs through February 26 in partnership with the D.C. jazz festival.
He writes the centerpiece song of the drama, “Bilal’s Lament,” and prelude snippets that act as transitional music. Funn, who also performs a 30-minute, pre-show solo jazz bass set before every performance of the play, spoke to District Fray about the creative process here.
District Fray: How did you get involved with “Bars and Measures”?
Kris Funn: To my knowledge, Idris [Goodwin] — the playwright who knows my wife Paige, and also the director of the play — is at Atlas Performing Arts Center now, and I think Reg [Reginald Douglas] asked Idris who he should use to compose the song and Idris ended up recommending me. That’s what I overheard.
So, this was another, “Yeah, Kris can do it!” moment?
Yeah! (Laughs.) There you go. [Ed. note: Some of Funn’s first gigs came when his father, a respected Baltimore jazz musician, volunteered his then-teenage son to play with local bandleaders. The phrase “Yeah, Kris can do it!” became a sort of tagline for those moments.]
Actually, my wife had directed a play of his a while back, called “How We Got On.” Idris also came to a gig of mine back when I was at Dukem, so I guess you could say I know him, too.
You’ve written songs and albums, but scoring is new to you, right?
This is the first time I’ve done it where it’s actually been on stage. I’ve been working on something with my wife for a while, but it hasn’t hit the stage yet. This is the first time I’ve had to compose something for a theater show. I was asked to write the song and a couple of transition moments, but I was trying to do like “Birdman.” I was trying to go there! I was trying to have bass everywhere.
The culmination of the show is basically: the bass player (and main character, Bilal) is writing a song while he’s incarcerated. At the end of the play, his brother has to perform it. So, I believe every time this play has been put on, someone has to compose that song. You have to rewrite “Bilal’s Lament,” and it’s been put on three or four times already.
I’ve never heard any of the other ones. You know plays: they’re like classified White House files. You’re not really supposed to record them; the only way you can see them is if you’re in the building.
Was there something that stood out to you in the script or general atmosphere of the play that resonated with you while you were writing?
I will say the first time I read the script, I found it very authentic. Idris did a lot of good research on it. Like he says things like, “Study Ahmad Jamal for space,” and “[Study] Count Basie to make one note swing” and he referenced the keys of many jazz standards. I don’t know where he got that info, but he pretty much nailed it. A lot of things said are things I’ve heard come out of musicians’ mouths.
I remember the first time I read the script, a melody popped in my head. From there, I took direction from Reg and David, who is the sound designer, and I sculpted into the field of what their vision was. The dynamic I was trying to capture was that one brother is a classical pianist — the brother that’s not incarcerate — and Bilal is a jazz bassist. So, I tried to incorporate a classical sound in it, as much as I can as a jazz musician.
“Bars and Measures” plays at the Mosaic Theater Company until February 26. You can purchase tickets here.
Learn more about Kris Funn at funndamentals.com and follow him at @funndamentals.
Mosaic Theater Company: 1333 H St. NE, DC; mosaictheater.org // @mosaictheaterdc
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