James Francies: Cleared for Takeoff

At 23, the keyboardist has made a grand debut

James Francies

James Francies appeared humbled and startled to see a full house for his gig at New York’s Jazz Standard. It was a chilly Friday evening in early November, and it was pouring outside. “Wow. I’m glad y’all came out in all of this rain,” he said, after introducing members of his band. “If I didn’t have to be here, I would be at home watching Law and Order or something.”

The audience had reason to brave the elements. Not only is the 23-year-old Francies one of the most talked-about pianists in jazz today, but the concert was celebrating the release of his auspicious Blue Note debut, Flight. Hailing from Houston and having attended the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts—alma mater to such jazz luminaries as Jason Moran and Robert Glasper—Francies has quickly risen to the high ranks of his generation. He’s already played with Pat Metheny, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Stefon Harris, as well as hip-hop royalty like the Roots, Common, and Nas.

On stage, the only musician besides Francies who’d played on Flight was bassist Burniss Travis II; drummer Kendrick Scott, saxophonist Ben Wendel, and guitarist Gilad Hekselman rounded out the lineup. Francies said that he had hoped to feature more of the musicians on the album, who include drummers Jeremy Dutton and Mike Mitchell, guitarist Mike Moreno, saxophonist Chris Potter (one of Francies’ high-profile mentors), and vibraphonist Joel Ross. “But the thing about New York is that everybody is busy or on tour,” he explained in the green room an hour before the first set. “So I just tried to put together a band of people who I thought would work well together, and that I had worked with before in different contexts.”

The ensemble launched into “Leaps,” a Francies original. Hekselman and Wendel articulated the winding melody in unison alongside Francies, who displayed his knack for unraveling intricate single-note improvisations on piano while simultaneously supplying colorful chord splashes on electric keyboards. With its soaring, suspenseful movements and Francies’ brisk interaction with the saxophone and guitar, “Leaps” sounded like the musical equivalent of an elaborate three-dimensional schematic diagram with fluorescent lights racing through the zigzagging lines. Its author, who claims to experience sound-to-color synesthesia, said, “I literally visualized the song’s melodic jumps. I took some musical shapes inside my head and thought about what they would look like in the physical world.”

The concert continued with rapturous renditions of Francies’ tugging, waltz-like “Sway” and the rhythmically intrepid “Reciprocal.” In between those two, Francies delivered a picturesque synth-piano interlude that sounded as if it could have been lifted from Sun Ra’s songbook.

Hekselman had only played with Francies a few times prior to the Jazz Standard engagement and, as he described after the first set, “I had to spend a lot of time trying to understand his rhythmic world, specifically with all the odd meters. But it was a nice challenge because there is substance to his music. He also has a rich harmonic world that comes out of gospel music and a lot of modern jazz. I definitely plan on looking back at some of those charts to better understand how the harmonies connect with one another. His music has a lot of pretty movements inside.”

Engrossing as the show was, Joel Ross’ absence was particularly regrettable; on Flight, he and Francies exhibit a superb rapport that’s on par with Jason Moran’s early work with Stefon Harris. Francies and Ross met when they were high-school students, in Houston and Chicago, respectively. They were both top jazz students in their schools, which allowed them to cross paths during high-school combo mini-tours. “Our chemistry is so natural,” Francies said. “We have never had to rehearse to find a vibe. It was there from the first note. Joel is one of the most talented people I know.”

Luckily, Flight’s guest vocalists did appear at the Jazz Standard. Chris Turner brought sensuality to the phantasmagoric “Dreaming,” while Kate Kelsey-Sugg rode the serrated pulse of Francies’ makeover of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s early-’80s R&B classic “Ain’t Nobody” with steely determination. The most rewarding vocal performance, though, was YEBBA’s on the poignant ballad “My Day Will Come.” Its lyrics, written by YEBBA, reflect her coming to grips with her mother’s suicide.

“My mom was mentally ill,” she revealed after the concert. “She shot herself and I was the one who found her. When I moved to New York, I had PTSD and all the other anxieties. When I wrote that song, James was honestly the only musical friend that I had at that time. We were just sitting around playing music and the lyrics just came out. It happened so quickly.”

Indeed, as much as Flight works like a finely tuned machine, Francies’ music exudes an unmistakable human element that makes it one of the most galvanizing jazz debuts to come along in recent times. He credits his high-school studies back in Texas—and teachers who encouraged him to write his own material—for helping him to develop his musical voice (he later moved to New York to attend the New School). “When you think of all the people who come from Houston, you can hear maybe two notes of their playing and you can recognize them,” he said. “There’s something about having that freedom at such a young age to just work on your songs.”