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High Velocity And Control: Jazz Pianist James Francies Takes His First 'Flight'

Jazz pianist James Francies released his debut album, <em>Flight, </em>in Oct. 2018.
Jati Lindsay
Courtesy of the artist
Jazz pianist James Francies released his debut album, Flight, in Oct. 2018.

Twenty-three-year-old jazz pianist James Francies has his musical fingerprints all over the place. From leading his own group at 2019'sWinter Jazzfest in New York City to playing shows in Tokyo with guitar legend Pat Metheny, the current pace of Francies's life is constantly in motion.

"It just feels like you're on a plane," Francies says. "Four thousand feet, traveling six hundred miles an hour."

Last fall, Blue Note Records released Flight,Francies's debut album.

Francies's reputation as a sideman is well-earned. The past four years, Francies has been a substitute for keyboardist James Poyser of The Roots, the house band of the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. The group faces the unique challenge of backing new and legendary popular recording artists every night.

"Me and my mom would watch the show on Fridays," Francies says, remembering his teenage years. "And she was like, 'You know, I feel like you're going to be like him one day."

Mom knew best.

His first piano lesson was a lifetime ago. He was 4 and could barely reach the keys.

"My piano teacher gave me this red book," Francies says. "I remember this [one] piece vividly, because it was only three notes. The teacher showed me something just so I could go home and say I could play something."

Growing up, Francies's parents' music tastes influenced his own. At 6, young Francies was obsessed with a VHS tape celebrating Michael Jackson's 30-year anniversary.

"I used to listen to Michael Jackson before I listened to jazz, you know," Francies says. "Which is crazy to think about."

John Coltrane's Lush Life with vocalist Johnny Hartman from dad's collection and his mom's love for Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan stuck with him. In fact, Francies did an arrangement of Rufus and Chaka Khn's 1983 hit "Ain't Nobody" for Flight.

Joe Sample, the co-founder of The Crusaders, was the first jazz pianist Francies ever saw live. Sample was a family friend who led a benefit performance at Francies' family's church.

"It was incredible," Francies says. "He wrote me a note saying, 'always love your music.' I'll never forget that."

Fast forward to high school. Francies auditions and gets accepted to Houston's famed High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. There, he learns technique and an appreciation for classical composers like Igor Stravinsky, his favorite. Pianist Jason Moran, the artistic director of jazz for the Kennedy Center and also an alumni of the school, takes notice in Francies.

Moran recalls a younger Francies playing on a level beyond "where we were when we were his age."

Moran hints at a mild case of envy for Francies' almost daily creative experiences with Anderson.Paak and Lauryn Hill, as well jazz veterans Jeff "Tain" Watts and Chris Potter.

"He's actually done, like, a myriad of kinds of bands that work in very different ways and scales," Moran says. "So that gives him an entirely different playing field to be starting from."

Flight showcases Francies originals, mostly instrumentals. The recording features a collaboration with vocalist Yebba. The 23-year-old Arkansas native is a relative newcomer, but she's sung with PJ Morton, Chance The Rapper and A Tribe Called Quest.

Francies and Yebba exchanged ideas on piano and guitar respectively for the track "My Day Will Come." The lyrics she wrote initially reflected her grief since her mother's suicide in 2016.

"I used to listen to Michael Jackson before I listen to jazz, you know," Francies says. "Which is crazy to think about."
Jati Lindsay / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
"I used to listen to Michael Jackson before I listen to jazz, you know," Francies says. "Which is crazy to think about."

Yebba recalls Francies's piano performance as both "fierce" and "gentle" on the finished track. Because the ease was there, she said it allowed her to focus on the simple things that she wanted to say.

"So, instead of me trying to be like, 'All this pain, all this pain, all this pain...' I feel like I just have to release that when I sing," Smith says. "He helped me to release hope."

A quietly imposing figure standing at least six feet tall, Francies sits real low at the piano to get the most of his hands and arms. His ability to play with high velocity yet control is a skill he's developed over time. Touched with a bit of inspiration, it emerges naturally.

Francies points to Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a Cuban-born pianist and phenom now in his 50s, as a model for his own maturity to come.

"He [Rubalcaba] gives it to you in nuggets," Francies says. "It's kind of like a boxer, you know, setting you up with the jabs, and [then] comes the uppercut."

Still trying to develop his virtuosity, Francies is sure he'll get there someday.

Francies turns practical when asked to predict what he will sound like 10 years from now.

"I don't know, I'm still thinking what I'm gonna sound like Friday. I just hope I sound good," he says. "I just want to articulate who James Francies is, the best way I can."

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Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.