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James Francies: Purest Form (Blue Note)

A review of the pianist's second album

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James Francies: Purest Form
The cover of Purest Form by James Francies.

With his 2018 debut Flight, pianist James Francies signaled a fresh, contemporary, and potentially world-shaking vision for the next generation of jazz. Follow-up Purest Form finds that vision in bloom. Much will likely be made of his use of electronic textures and effects, and of organic drums (by way of Jeremy Dutton, who forms the album’s core trio along with bassist Burniss Travis) to play EDM-type beats. The real excitement, though, lies in Francies’ ear for displacement.

By displacement, I mean that he has a knack for putting spaces and harmonic and rhythmic turns in unexpected places. It’s by turns obvious—as on “Levitate” or “Where We Stand,” where both melody and groove are built around glitchy, accent-shifting beats—and subtle, as with the odd chords that end-stop Bilal’s vocal lines in “Eyes Wide Shut,” or vinyl-record static that becomes a regular, but offbeat, percussion layer on “713.”

It can all be disorienting, the more so because of Francies’ often blinding speed. When vibraphonist Joel Ross joins in (“My Favorite Things,” “Where We Stand”), the music can evoke Frank Zappa’s Synclavier period: the stuff he thought too fast and complex for humans to play. Yet with repeat listens, disruptive rhythms like those on “Transfiguration” ultimately feel organic, even satisfying when set against Immanuel Wilkins’ alto solo. Those jarring details secured, more superficial shifts—e.g., into string quartet arrangements (“Stratus,” “Still Here”)—are easily absorbed.

Let none of these subversions distract from the fundamental talent Francies deploys. His ultra-fast runs can sometimes sound like cheap glissandi; in fact they contain deep, knowledgeable packets of jazz language mindful of Hancock, Kirkland, and Glasper. Behind the self-conscious electronic distortions of “Melting” is one of the most haunting compositions in recent memory. Francies is so good, he has to mask just how good he is.


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James Francies: Cleared for Takeoff

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.