“Poised to become a major voice on the instrument” as Taylor Eigsti notes, James Francies has been maintaining a robust musical momentum for the past 14 years and is already a recognized voice in contemporary jazz at age 18. Now attending The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Francies is a recent graduate of The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Houston, Texas. With rich exposure to progressive musicianship, having played with the likes of Bobby Watson, Eric Harland, Julian Lage, Joe Lovano, and Mike Moreno, among others, Francies has won continuous scholarships, accolades in DownBeat, opening slots for the Jazz Crusaders, and appearances at The Monterey Jazz Festival, the Jazz Standard, and The Kennedy Center.
On Thursday, April 24th, 2014 as part of the Gallery’s Thursday night début series, we present Kinetic: The James Francies Group, with James Francies on piano, Mike Moreno on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. We spoke recently with James in the West Village to discuss his life as a musician and his thoughts on the upcoming performance.
TJG: You recently graduated from The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) and have now been at The New School since the fall. How has the transition to the city been?
JF: Houston’s jazz scene isn’t as big as New York’s, so being here in New York gives me the opportunity to play a lot more, see all of my favorite musicians—all of my heroes playing right around the corner. Kenny Barron might be playing at The Village Vanguard or Bennie Green at the Jazz Standard—the type of people that I used to dream about seeing, they’re just here. That’s the beauty of New York. Robert Glasper, Taylor Eigsti, Stefon Harris, and Antonio Hart have particularly looked out for me since I moved here. I really appreciate that. I’m studying under George Cables and Bilal. They are completely different but both have such a wealth of knowledge. I’m still acclimating to the lack of space in New York. I do miss the food in Houston. I need a good country meal now and then.
TJG: What are the go-to eats in Houston?
JF: Frenchy’s Chicken: the best chicken you’ll ever have. Their French fries and collard greens are great, just great soul food. Also, this place Whataburger: a great burger joint. Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, and Chris Dave would also all speak highly of those establishments.
TJG: Tell us about your musical upbringing. Can you cite some memorable experiences?
JF: I started playing piano at four years old and began taking weekly lessons through my school. Amongst the classical material I was learning, I was always inclined toward the jazzier pieces. My first teacher, Michael Higgins, worked with me through third grade and helped me take interest in piano. As the years went on, my teachers began to recognize that I had perfect pitch. Outside of lessons, I just loved music. My dad was a huge jazz fan and always had a lot of records around. He piqued my interest in jazz. My mother was into the whole Earth, Wind & Fire thing—that was her vibe. My uncle would also introduce me to funk and R&B. My parents aren’t musicians but they know great music. They can tell when something doesn’t sound right. Between the two of them, there was music all of the time.
When I was about 11 or 12, I heard Oscar Peterson for the first time. I believe it was “C Jam Blues” on Night Train. It just blew my mind. He’s still my favorite piano player of all time. The first jazz piano player I ever heard live was Joe Sample from The Crusaders: he played at my church. The Summer Jazz Workshop was very pivotal for me. I did that for three summers before high school. They taught theory, harmony, repertoire, and offered performance opportunities. My most influential teacher there was Bobby Lyle; he really took me to the next level on jazz and classical piano. Bobby was an Oscar Peterson fanatic too. Going to HSPVA was important for me. If you’re going to be a great musician in Houston, that is certainly the place to learn. The school presented me with so many opportunities: traveling to festivals, master classes, exposure to artists, local gigging opportunities, their partnership with the Monk Institute, etc. I was fortunate enough to play in both big band and combo settings for four years. A lot of cats today don’t have the opportunity to play in a big band—especially piano players, as there’s only one seat.
TJG: Robert Glasper and Taylor Eigsti have been cited as primary mentors of yours. How did these relationships develop and what has been most valuable about them?
JF: I met Robert Glasper early on in high school. He sat in on our big band rehearsal one time. It was my turn to take a solo and I was completely unaware that Robert was right behind me watching. It’s been a great relationship ever since. He’s been a big brother figure to me in terms of passing along gigs and recommending me for opportunities. I met Taylor Eigsti a couple of years ago at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. He has also been a big brother figure. We’ve played together in duo contexts and talk often. I am constantly sending compositions, arrangements, and musical ideas to them for feedback and they’re gracious to be so responsive. I’m very fortunate to have them.
TJG: What about other influences with respect to jazz or in other genres?
JF: My biggest influences are: Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Hampton Hawes, Earth, Wind & Fire, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Frédéric Chopin, Béla Bartók, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Also, Michael Jackson—before I got into jazz and even now. He was my idol when I was six years old. His music is just great.
TJG: Can you discuss your relationship to the other musicians you’ll be playing with? How did these relationships develop?
JF: I met Mike a couple years back. He’s from Houston, attended HSPVA like me. Phenomenal, of course—everyone knows who he is. I played a bit with him in Houston and now here in NYC. It’s been a great learning experience playing with him because he knows so much. He knows a ton of tunes and can write his ass off. I also consider him a big brother figure. I met Joe through Jeremy as Jeremy was taking lessons with him. Of course, Joe plays with everyone. He’s awesome, too, and I thought it would be great to get him on the gig. Jeremy and I have known each other since we were young. We both went to HSPVA and you could say we grew up together both musically and as people. He’s a best friend and the drummer that I would choose over anyone.
TJG: What kind of material do you have in store for the upcoming show?
JF: We will be playing an assortment: primarily of my originals in addition to whatever Mike, Joe, or Jeremy wants to bring to the table. We might throw some covers in. I occasionally like to do my own take on contemporary pop tunes as a means to hopefully challenge younger listeners to explore jazz. I’d like to see jazz get more recognition among younger listeners and shed some of its image as a “secret genre” that requires you to be “in the know.” It’s nice when musicians like your music, but I’d like to reach a broad audience. It’s never a goal to water down the music by any means, but making it relevant for younger people can be helpful.
TJG: Could you tell us a little bit about your approach to composition?
JF: I write and arrange a lot. With synesthesia, most of my compositions are color based. I might write something around the color pink or purple; it usually starts that way and then it just goes wherever it wants. I tend to gravitate towards certain colors because of their relationship to specific keys or cadences, but I’m trying to get away from that. Most of the time I don’t use the piano when composing. I typically write for piano trio, quartet, or quintet. I’ve also been working on some material for string quartet and would like to broaden my knowledge of big band writing. That’s a harder task to take on, as there aren’t just big bands sitting around at my disposal. Taylor Eigsti has been showing me some things as he writes for orchestras. I’d like to parlay the writing I’m doing for string quartet into writing for orchestras at some point.
TJG: What is your relationship to electric instrumentation?
JF: I love electric stuff, definitely a fan of the Fender Rhodes. I work in Logic a lot and sometimes I’ll bring it on stage, sending different sounds through my MIDI keyboard. Logic is convenient because it encompasses so many sounds. I went through a synthesizer phase senior year of high school and I have a Micro Korg XL that I use sometimes. I’m also a fan of the Roland Jupiter.
TJG: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
TJG: What are you listening to these days?
Music: Hiatus Kaiyote, Thundercat, John Legend (Get Lifted, Once Again), Vijay Iyer (Accelerando), Chris Turner, Igor Stravinsky (Petrushka), Dmitri Shostakovich, Debussy (Études), Michael Jackson (Off the Wall, Invincible), Earth Wind & Fire.
Kinetic: The James Francies Group will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 24th, 2014. This performance features James Francies on piano, Mike Moreno on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for members. Second set is $10 general admission and $5 for members. Purchase tickets here.