From the first measures on pianist/keyboardist James Francies’ spirited Blue Note Records debut album, Flight, you sense there is something atypical about to unfold. There’s nothing predictable the rest of the way—straight-up lyrical beauties, r&b drives and three divergent vocal tracks—which is what the 23-year-old Houston-born leader wanted his first album to achieve.
Francies calls the Derrick Hodge-produced album Flight for a reason: “Think of the Wright Brothers and how everyone called them crazy for thinking you could put a human in the air,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all about defying the odds. That is me. Some people may think that their first album should be straight-ahead where you have to play ‘Giant Steps’ and a bunch of standards, you have to check off what you need to do, and then play a bunch of notes. But, the big picture for me was to show myself as an artist and to express how diverse I can be acoustically and electrically.”
He added, “I don’t hear things in a typical way harmonically and rhythmically. I find beauty in asymmetry with these weird little things that are odd and try to make them sound like they’re not weird.”
Accomplished and knighted sideman
As young as he is, Francies has already found himself at the center of New York’s abundant jazz scene, with an impressive sideman gig in vibraphonist Stefon Harris’ Blackout project Sonic Creed, a touring blast with José James’ Bill Withers show (the singer singles him out as a “genius” during his live sets), and a special engagement touring with Pat Metheny over the past year after he got up the courage to introduce himself to the guitarist on an airport tarmac. “Mr. Metheny, I’m James Francies and I want to let you know I’m a huge fan and that your music has inspired me,” the pianist said. “And Pat replied, I know who you are. I’ve been watching your videos since you were in high school. Stop over my house and let’s play.”
Then there’s the connection with Questlove, who has taken Francies in under his wing. The pianist sits in with the Roots on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show and has collaborated with him on a couple of film scores. “Quest is a real genius,” Francies said. “You hear him play one note, and you know it’s him. He knows every kind of music, and how he leads his band is special. I’ve known him since I was 19, and I can appreciate how he’s so well studied, and the sounds he gets when he records inspires me.”
One of the highlight songs on Flight that invites a different audience into the party is Francies’ ‘refreshing 80s-style read on the 1983 Chaka Khan hit “Ain’t Nobody.” Based on his love for her music (this was one of his and his mother’s “faves”) as well as Rufus and Earth, Wind & Fire, he leaps into his jazz-funk electric keyboard arrangement with a flair that defies dated jazz. Australia-born, New York-based singer Kate Kelsey-Sugg supplies the delicious vocals with improv at the end. Questlove made sure the take got to Khan. “Quest wanted to hear the mix,” Francies said. “Of course, he’s known everyone from Prince to Stevie Wonder—my heroes. So, he sent it to his friend Chaka. A couple of nights later, he casually texted me, ‘Chaka really loves your recording. She wanted me to tell you personally.’”
Other beyond-the-norm vocals features include a co-write with Yebba (aka Abigail Smith) on the powerhouse “My Day Will Come” and the other-worldly soul song, “Dreaming,” with Oakland-born, New York-based vocalist Chris Turner singing falsetto and Francies swaying in and out on piano and Fender Rhodes.
The Houston team
Francies also celebrates his hometown with the playful “Crib,” with Potter and vibes player Joel Ross exchanging conversations with Francies’ blend of acoustic piano and electric keyboards. The opening takes place in an airport with the announcement voiceover, “Welcome to Houston.” Francies proudly knows that he represents the next generation of significant artists who graduated from the High School for the Performing Arts and Visual Arts, whose alums include keyboardists Robert Glasper, Jason Moran and Helen Sung, drummers Chris Dave, Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott and pop icon Beyoncé Knowles. “I have big shoes to fill,” Francies said. “Houston is the city that has a hybrid of musicians whose music can’t be categorized. They just play music from their personalities. Jazz needs more people who are being themselves and not being shaped into what came before. You have people from Houston in a band, and you can hear their personalities. Put Eric Harland in a band, and you can hear that lift that makes everyone else sound great. They’re the true artists and visionaries.”
For his launch into the recording world with Flight, Francies enlisted hometown friends such as guitarist Moreno, bassist Burniss Travis II and drummer Jeremy Dutton and set out to make a record that didn’t sound like an audition. “I just wanted to get together with my friends and play music,” he said. ”I grew up with them so I feel and hear the chemistry. It’s all so natural .”
As for homegrown advice on Flight, Glasper and Scott (who held the beats down in Francies’ band at the Standard) cautioned him. “They both said, everyone knows you can play a lot of notes,” he said. “”We all get that. So, make sure you pace yourself. Instead of playing a million notes because you can, let your record tell your story.”