James Francies takes ‘Flight’ as latest HSPVA jazz star
James Francies speaks in a gentle murmur that doesn’t really rise or fall. So a year ago when we met at the Lancaster Hotel downtown, he discussed his forthcoming album in an unassuming manner.
“It’ll be a mixture of acoustic and electronic,” he said. “Some of it will be a piano-trio-type album but not in a traditional piano-trio setting. I use the laptop to get some different sounds and samples. That sort of thing.”
Francies, who plays Discovery Green on Saturday, Nov. 10, was so understated, I almost missed the boast: “It has its own special thing. No one is really doing anything quite like it.”
Francies’ “Flight” was released last month. And the record is a world unto itself, an atmosphere of sound that really should be experienced without distraction and with a good set of speakers.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10
Where: Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney
Details: free, discoverygreen.com
At 23, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alum already has an admirable set of credits to his name, including playing piano on Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-winning song “No Problem,” as well as having gigged with an array of jazz, R&B and hip-hop players including Lauryn Hill, Nas, Pat Metheny and Jose James. From time to time, he’ll also sit in with the Roots on “The Tonight Show.”
But “Flight” is its own bird. Like Robert Glasper, another HSPVA grad who has served as a mentor of sorts for Francies, the young pianist arrives as a solo artist who has made his own space by refusing to adhere strictly to any one musical style. He’s as comfortable playing straight jazz as he is backing a soul singer. But left to his own devices, he does as the album title implies, lifting him and his music above terrestrial categorizations.
“I chose ‘Flight’ because it had so many meanings behind it,” Francies says. “For one, there’s the Wright brothers, who people thought were crazy. That idea of defying odds and proving people wrong. And also the idea of flying anywhere. Thousands of miles away. Or more internally, thinking about who you are and what you can do. Go out and reach for what you want to do.”
Francies grew up in South Park and started playing piano at age 4, though he describes a particularly Houston-centric door that opened two years later. His family took him to see the great Joe Sample, who cut his teeth as a jazz player at Wheatley High School before going to Los Angeles and perfecting a crossover jazz/soul sound with the Crusaders. Francies still has a poster from the show, which Sample signed for him with the message, “Always love your music.”
Francies took private lessons and later attended Craig Green’s Summer Jazz Workshop, an educational step nearly all of Houston’s great jazz players take. He also benefited from mentoring from his best friend’s father: Chris Walker, who had a pop hit in the ’90s with “Take Time” and whose career spans jazz and R&B, particularly a long run as a bassist and band leader for Al Jarreau.
Walker accompanied Francies on his audition at HSPVA. The school’s jazz program has flooded New York with remarkable talent for decades now.
“I feel like we should just set up a table at that high school’s graduation,” says Don Was, the noted producer and head of Blue Note, a prestige jazz label that turns 80 next year. “Get your diploma, sign a record deal. The amount of talent coming out of there is astounding.”
Pianist Jason Moran, another HSPVA alum, got his start with Blue Note before starting his own label. Currently drummers Kendrick Scott and Chris Dave, pianist Glasper and saxophonist Everett Harp — all HSPVA alumni — are Blue Note artists. And many of the label’s albums by non-Houstonians feature other players who passed through HSPVA.
“James’ talent was clear from the outset,” Was says of Francies. “He’s a guy you’re going to hear from for years.”
Though Francies has been away from Houston for years now, his album doubles back to where he grew up. “Crib” is the most obvious nod to his hometown. Partway through the instrumental, the music drops and a flight-attendantlike voice says, “On behalf of all of us here, we’d like to be the first to welcome you to Houston.”
“Everybody here refers to Houston as ‘the crib,’” Francies says. “So I try to give the city a shout-out wherever I go.”
The song is a fascinating one, with Chris Potter’s saxophone and Joel Ross’ vibraphone chasing each other along the melody. An acoustic piano would’ve been a more than suitable choice for Francies to add to the piece, but he instead taps out the lines on a spacey electric keyboard. After the “Welcome to Houston” announcement, the song changes tempo and feel, feeling more free form and exploratory with the instruments undergoing some electronic processing. Once was the time it might get tagged fusion. But the melding of forms is so natural in 2018, it doesn’t feel like a fusion, a word that implies different things forced into harmony. Throughout “Flight,” Francies presents the music with fluidity. Through his mind, these sounds were meant to be together.
“I think that’s a cool thing you hear with a lot of musicians who come out of Houston,” he says. “They can do two or more things really well. Chris Dave can play with Kenny Garrett but also D’Angelo and Mint Condition. The environment there forces you to not be one-sided.”
A fine example of that approach is a version of “Ain’t Nobody,” the Rufus and Chaka Khan song from the late ’70s. Francies says the song is one of his mother’s favorites. He reimagines it with a mix of reverence and discovery, updating it as a jazzy soul piece.
“The terms we use can be a problem,” Francies says. Even ‘jazz’ … that term can hurt in a way. For such a long time, it had this perception of being intellectual music but not something you’d hear on the radio. I don’t know, I just like the idea of more openness. It should be available. Before you put something in a box, try to see how it works as a whole.”
“Leaps” also exhibits a thread that pulls “Flight” together: An electronic undercurrent keeps pulsing near the surface of the song, tying together old traditions and new sounds.
“More than a well-rounded record, I wanted it to have a sound,” Francies says. “And I wanted that sound to not sound dated in a year or several years. I was trying to do something that would still sound good 20 years from now. Something that goes beyond now. If there’s an idea that ties everything together, that’s it.”