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Blue Note

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October 19 2018

Plenty of young musicians show promise, but very few enjoy the sort of meteoric rise that pianist, keyboardist and composer James Francies is currently experiencing. At only 23, he’s played with jazz headliners like Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Stefon Harris, Eric Harland, and Terrace Martin, and racked up equally impressive credits in hip-hop and R&B: from gigs with Ms. Lauryn Hill, José James, Common, and Nas, to studio time for Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-winning hit “No Problem” and Kodak Black, to appearances with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon alongside his mentor and friend Questlove.

Now comes Flight, the extraordinary debut album that welcomes Francies into the storied Blue Note Records family and finds him melding his jazz mastery and pop experience on 11 searching, engaging tracks. But as bold and new as this moment might seem for Francies, it’s also a homecoming, in more ways than one. Francies, like his Blue Note predecessors Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Chris Dave and Kendrick Scott, is a proud Houstonite and a graduate of that city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), one of the nation’s most reliable incubators for era-defining jazz talent. “Just to follow in their footsteps, let alone in the footsteps of Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell and all of these other artists who recorded for the label, it’s an honor,” Francies says. “And there’s a responsibility that comes with it too.”

As any Blue Note fan could tell you, that responsibility requires a skillful symmetry between jazz’s past and future—a willingness to bolster the art form’s history while saying something personal and unprecedented. On Flight, Francies achieves that balance while showcasing some of the best musicians of his generation—all of them trusted comrades and collaborators, and several of them fellow Houston standouts.

"I wanted Flight to have its own sonic identity, so I blended electronic-sounding stuff with acoustic playing, without compromising any of the compositions or the soloing.”

Francies has known his rhythm section—bassist Burniss Travis II and drummer Jeremy Dutton, both from Houston, and Dallas drummer Mike Mitchell, who handles one tune—since his early teens. Appearing on four tracks is Houston native Mike Moreno, among the most important guitarists in jazz today, who provided Francies with crucial support after he’d relocated to New York half a decade ago. “Whenever he was writing new music, he’d have me come over and play it,” Francies remembers. “He was always willing to share, and he’d always do gigs with me, even when I first got here. There’d be nobody in the audience, but he’d still do it.” On four other tracks, Francies’ singing lines entangle with the young vibraphone star Joel Ross, a Chicagoan the pianist met about eight years back. “Joel is one of the most talented people I know,” he says. “He’s always been that good—always.” Tenor saxophone giant Chris Potter—“a great mentor and a great bandleader,” Francies says—appears on a trio of cuts, and three uniquely powerful singers, YEBBA, Chris Turner, and Kate Kelsey-Sugg highlight one track apiece.

Just as integral to Flight’s tastefully innovative sound is Derrick Hodge, the Robert Glasper Experiment bassist and Blue Note recording artist who, as producer, helped Francies shape the album’s sonics. “We’ve been in contact for so long, so it was such a natural choice; the energy between us is endearing and sympathetic, and he’s such a positive guy,” Francies says. “He’s someone who, like myself, I consider a hybrid musician—someone who can go between different genres.

"I wanted Flight to have its own sonic identity,” Francies states, “so I blended electronic-sounding stuff with acoustic playing, without compromising any of the compositions or the soloing.”

Indeed, Francies’ writing remains direct and compelling, even as stealthy twists to the production, rhythm and harmony give Flight a subversive edge. Beautiful and cathartic but shot through with mystery, “Leaps” opens the album as a sweeping display of the ensemble chemistry to come—“a nice appetizer for the whole record,” Francies says. “Reciprocal,” a startling, fiery showcase for Ross and Potter, satisfies on a visceral level as well as a cerebral one, should you attempt to ID its time signature. “Sway” is a swinging quartet workout with casually burning solo work from Francies and Moreno. A moving paean to hope, “My Day Will Come” was co-written by the pianist and his dear friend YEBBA, an Arkansas-raised singer currently based in Brooklyn. “Crib”—Houston, in the locals’ parlance—is four-plus minutes of white-hot, fusion-soaked post-bop: Ross, Francies and Potter hook up on a labyrinthine melody, atop rhythm section work that’s urgent and state-of-the-art.

An inspired remake of the Rufus and Chaka Khan hit “Ain’t Nobody” features impassioned vocals by Australia’s Kate Kelsey-Sugg and matches neo-soul with 21st-century jazz and flashes of hip-hop—in other words, “that one has been Houston-ized,” Francies says. “It’s a song I grew up on,” he continues. “It’s one of my mom’s favorite songs, and one of my favorite songs, too.” (And let the record show that Khan and Questlove dig it.) “ANB” and “Dark Purple” are exercises in artfully produced atmosphere and affecting songcraft. “Dreaming” is futuristic soul featuring electronically enhanced vocals by Chris Turner, and Mike Mitchell’s hyperkinetic drum work. “A Lover and a Fighter” is a pitch-perfect set-closer, with enigmatic writing, a stunning crescendo spotlight for Potter and more of those savvy production flourishes; with expert control, Francies and Hodge add flecks of pop and electronica without distracting from the next-level performances.

Called “a pianist with liquid dynamism in his touch” by the New York Times, Francies started on piano around age 4, with classical training and an education in the music of the church. Blessed with perfect pitch and synesthesia (or the ability to hear in colors), he attended his first jazz concert, by Houston-born piano legend Joe Sample, at age 6, and began studying jazz in junior high. Many deep influences followed, some of them surprising. Along with pianists like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Taylor Eigsti, a longtime pal, Francies points to guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Mike Moreno and such trumpet masters as Nicholas Payton, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan. A highly decorated tenure at HSPVA—including spots in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, the Thelonious Monk Institute All-Star Jazz Sextet and the GRAMMY Jazz Session Combo—earned Francies a full scholarship to Manhattan’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

While he was earning his degree, Francies was also rapidly ascending the jazz ranks and building a professional career. Early bandstand time with Jeff “Tain” Watts helped him cut his teeth and raise his profile, as did his first international tour, with Chris Dave and the Drumhedz. Chris Potter tapped him for his trio along with drummer Eric Harland, and Pat Metheny assembled a trio with Francies and drummer Nate Smith. Francies’ own group, Kinetic, has garnered buzz at events like NYC Winter Jazzfest and BRIC JazzFest. He met Questlove and Roots keyboardist James Poyser a few years ago, and since then has become a go-to resource for Quest and company—subbing for Poyser on Roots concerts and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; participating in the Roots-produced Hamilton cast recording, in addition to other film and TV score work organized by Quest; and, currently, collaborating with The Roots emcee Black Thought on a Broadway show.

Francies says that his experiences outside of jazz have helped him with concepts like “assembling sounds, consistency, delivery and the ability to support,” and it certainly isn’t difficult to hear these lessons throughout Flight. An embodiment of the Blue Note ethos at this thriving moment in the label’s history, it’s a dynamic, ultramodern jazz record, infused with pop, hip-hop and R&B, that remains entertaining from start to finish. “This record is for everybody,” Francies says.