Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Red velvet frames another Tuesday night at Zinc Bar as James Francies gets inside a blues in 6 and stays there for a good long while. Now and then a virtuosic line escapes his right hand, but ultimately returns to the thick groove.

In five short years, the Houston-born pianist/composer has become a force on the New York scene, working steadily to dissolve genre lines and create new music that preserves and connects all his early influences, and explores the shape of what’s to come.

“Growing up in Houston, I was exposed to music at a very young age,” says Francies. “Playing classical music, playing in church, going to jam sessions and having different teachers—it was always just a mash of good music.” An artist who’s focused on uncovering innate musical connections, past and present, Francies finds himself less concerned with shoehorning one particular sound into another. Instead, he allows those connections to emerge naturally.

“I don’t try to ‘combine’ my roots because once you have roots, you can’t really turn away from them,” he says. “I just try to let my personal experiences and my influences authentically come out. Having a jazz and classical foundation has really helped me understand where I want to go, where I’m going and where I am, musically.”

Where he is, musically, is where he is, physically. According to Francies, the New York music scene has had a profound effect not only on the way he plays, but on his degree of day-to-day hustle. “I never saw New York as an arrival; I always saw it more as a launching pad,” he says.

“I always wanted to come to New York—ever since I was 12. So I was always focused and still, to this day, working hard. When I got here, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I finally made it!’ It was more like, now you have to work twice as hard—three times as hard—to get to where you want to be. And I do enjoy it. New York’s one of those places that keeps you on your toes.” (more…)

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A Gibson across her lap, Camila Meza sits opposite a young student who closes his eyes and begins to sing over a two-chord progression. “We started singing, and he didn’t even know he had this in him,” she says.

“We were talking about improvisation and the idea of connecting your own ideas and your own melodies to your solos, getting rid of the idea of playing by memory—playing lines that you’ve already learned, stuff like that. He started singing over a certain chord these beautiful melodies, a great progression of intervals, and we ended up literally making a song. His improvisation became a song.”

For the Chilean-born singer, guitarist, composer and bilingual lyricist, encouraging students to develop their own sound by releasing preexisting musical concepts comes as naturally as an inhale—and reflects an essential quality of her own expression. “My approach always sort of gravitates to what feels natural,” she says, “what feels good to the body, what feels good to sing to. I would never force something to be just because, intellectually, I want it to be.”

Naturally inquisitive, curiosity gripped Meza from an early age, and has pervaded her sound ever since. As a child playing her father’s record collection, melody would haunt her.

“I feel like I’ve always, in a way, been really, really curious about the world that lies underneath the melody,” says Meza. “[That world] can somehow change the whole universe of a melody, and the whole way we perceive that statement. [Even as a child,] I immediately sensed that there was something really deep in how you would build that world beneath the melody, and how that could influence the whole thing.”

As she listened to other people’s music more intently, and began developing a sound of her own, Meza began noticing colors. She wanted to be able to choose the specific extensions and manipulate voicings that would allow her melodies to “shine” in a particular way. “I started to realize that changing the structure of what lies beneath the melody could make you feel emotions in a very different way, when it comes to the melody,” she says.

“A chord, and also the bass movement, can literally change your whole perception of what the intervallic movement of the melody is. And that’s when I started experimenting with it. I would take a song and keep the melody and mess around with the harmony like crazy. I realized I had so much control of the emotional concept of the melody just by surfing underneath it. That’s when I started doing arrangements and having so much fun reharmonizing stuff and sort of playing around with that aspect of music” (more…)

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Vinyl records piled high, and worn out diamond needles gathered in corners throughout Joe Martin’s childhood home in Pella, Iowa, where he became an active listener at a young age. Son of instrumentalist parents, the bass player/composer began developing his ear, the force behind his supportive, harmonically inquisitive, and lyrical musical style. “I’ve always liked melodies,” he says, “something that sticks in your head.”

“Melody and lyricism is something that speaks to me. At the same time, I consider myself very much a bass player, so I like incorporating that kind of sensibility, but still functioning in a band. As far choosing the notes for my basslines, the way I feel time, [etc.]—it’s sort of keeping everything ‘from the ground up.’ As I’ve gotten more into the bass and the idea of melody and lyricism, I think I’ve gotten more into the way the bass functions as this foundational instrument in any band, plus this sort of counterpoint, or the contrapuntal relationship with other instruments in the band.”

The foundational support that pervades Martin’s playing feels and sounds fluid and flexible, securing him countless opportunities to play. The relationships Martin has developed with other players over the years have invited a cross section of influences into his musical narrative, and has allowed hims to influence the artistic direction of many projects by his peers.

Most recently, Martin played on Chris Potter’s release The Dreamer is the Dream (ECM, 2017), and is gearing up to be part of the yet unconfirmed but anticipated release of Mark Turner’s upcoming quartet record, rumored to be ready in early 2018. Martin views each experience he’s had since coming to New York in the mid 90s as an opportunity for exploration and development.

“Playing with a lot of different kinds of players exposes you to all of their different influences, so you’re constantly being exposed to new points of view,” he says. “Most of the people I’ve played with since I’ve been in New York are jazz or improvisationally-oriented musicians, so there’s some sort of string that ties all of that together, but everybody has different places that they’re coming from.” (more…)

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Many artists find an affinity for the spontaneous to be a part of their constitution; Adam Larson, over the years, has had to cultivate his. Since he came to New York from the Midwest nearly a decade ago, the 28-year-old saxophonist/composer has pushed himself through transpositions not only of artistic expression, but life philosophy. A need for adaptation has transformed into desire for openness, and an evolving flexibility now pervades his sound.

“I do feel like, in my younger days, I would step on the bandstand and say, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing all this stuff in the practice room; I’m going to just go into shred mode and let the chips fall where they may,” says Larson. “But now—I mean what’s the point of hiring all these great musicians if you don’t take advantage of what they’re going to do? I think listening to how people interact and create has helped.”

A few weeks ago, Larson put together a last-minute gig at 55 Bar. Surrounded by three risk-taking improvisers—Ari Hoenig, Matt Clohesy and Fabian Almazan—Larson felt supported, if a bit nervous. Without time to rehearse before the hit, he considered abandoning a new tune he had been looking forward to premiering, but decided to embrace the raw dynamic instead.

“I almost bailed on it,” he says. “We got to that tune in the set—it was a packed house—and I was like, ‘Okay, I have everybody here I need with me.’ [The anxiety] was irrational because I was playing with three of the best musicians I know, so it could have gone wrong and still been great. And it was great. It was really great.”

A band-leading tenor player, Larson has been involved with certain projects whose members rehearse intently and others whose members don’t rehearse at all. He appreciates each as its own, unique opportunity. “Both have their benefits,” he says. “If you rehearse [the tunes] to death, there’s maybe not as much spontaneity, but if it’s under-rehearsed, it could go two ways; it could be catastrophic or loose and cool.” (more…)