Plenty of young musicians show promise, but very few enjoy the sort of meteoric rise that pianist, keyboardist, producer, and composer James Francies has experienced. Since his debut album Flight entranced listeners in 2018, Francies has expanded personal explorations of sound bending and orchestral approaches to the music. Collaborations across stylistic realms — including those with Childish Gambino, Pat Metheny, Mark Ronson, The Roots, YEBBA, Chris Potter, Common, Eric Harland, Marcus Miller, DJ Dahi and Ms. Lauryn Hill — have enhanced his development and refined his sound.
Called “a pianist with liquid dynamism in his touch” by the New York Times, Francies started on piano around age 4, with classical training and an education in the music of the church. Blessed with perfect pitch and synesthesia (or the ability to hear in colors), he attended his first jazz concert, by Houston-born piano legend Joe Sample, at age 6, and began studying jazz in junior high. Many deep influences followed, some of them surprising. Along with pianists like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Taylor Eigsti, a longtime pal, Francies points to guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Mike Moreno and such trumpet masters as Nicholas Payton, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan. A highly decorated tenure at HSPVA—including spots in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, the Thelonious Monk Institute All-Star Jazz Sextet and the GRAMMY Jazz Session Combo—earned Francies a full scholarship to Manhattan’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
While he was earning his degree, Francies was also rapidly ascending the jazz ranks and building a professional career. Early bandstand time with Jeff “Tain” Watts helped him cut his teeth and raise his profile, as did his first international tour, with Chris Dave and the Drumhedz. Chris Potter tapped him for his trio along with drummer Eric Harland, and Pat Metheny assembled a trio with Francies and drummer Nate Smith. He met Questlove and Roots keyboardist James Poyser a few years ago, and since then has become a go-to resource for Quest and company—subbing for Poyser on Roots concerts and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; participating in the Roots-produced Hamilton cast recording, in addition to other film and TV score work.
In issuing Purest Form, his second Blue Note release, Francies accesses intimate chambers of his artistry, interpreting love, grief, frailty, and fortitude. The album’s core trio includes Francies’ longtime collaborators Burniss Travis on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums—three Houston-raised artists who have been playing together and developing alongside one another for more than a decade. Additional musicians featured throughout include his Blue Note labelmates alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross, as well as guitarist Mike Moreno and vocalists Elliott Skinner, Peyton, and Bilal.