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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Design by Remi Denis, courtesy of the artist.

To say that pianist James Francies has had a busy 2018 is the epitome of understatement. For one thing, he’s been hard at work putting together his Blue Note Records debut, coming out in September. For another, he’s continued to play regularly with The Roots on The Tonight Show. And when we talked on the phone this week to discuss his 2018 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, Francies was in between shows on tour with Lauryn Hill.

For the Commission, Francies has convened a trio of longtime collaborators—drummer (and fellow Houston native) Eric Harland, and vocalist Kate Kay Es. He’s called the project R3ACT, and it examines notions of interactivity and the improvisational mindset. The project also finds Francies taking stock of his life in New York, now a year a removed from his undergraduate studies. To hear more about R3ACT, check out our conversation with Francies, below.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working on your debut record for Blue Note for a while now, and I was wondering if your Residency Commission project is an extension of the record, or a shift to something new.

James Francies: It’s something completely different for me. If anything, it’s more of an extension of a duo project that Eric Harland and I have going. I definitely wanted to tap into that world a bit more. Eric and I had talked about adding voice in the past, and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to try that out, especially with Kate. She’s on the album, and I’ve always been a fan of hers. With Kate, it’s more of a vocalist acting more like an instrumentalist—someone who’s contributing ideas within the whole, and not just being supported by the band.

I’ve been working on the record for so long, and I’m such a meticulous person in the studio. We’ve been recording and mixing and tweaking in the studio this whole year up until June, basically. I wanted to take my time in this way and try to get it as close to perfect as I could—just get the songs to sound the way that I wanted them to.

The commission then became a whole different thing. It’s called R3ACT, and it’s all about the reactions within the group, like a perpetually energy that’s moving between each person. That’s how I like to approach playing in a group—I’m always reacting to things that I’m hearing. I think as an artist, it’s really important to react to what’s around us, not just in music, but in our lives.

TJG: It sounds like you’re exploring a method of music-making, rather than music with a more explicit narrative.

JF: I guess you could put it that way. When I talk about reaction, it has to do with the way things are composed as well. A lot of these pieces lend themselves to going to a further place. They’re designed to be played live, if that makes any sense. When I’m listening to my favorite records, I feel that the musicians aren’t just playing through the music as they know it. They’re also adding to it at the same time. A reaction is all about decision-making. A lot of my favorite musicians make amazing decisions in the moment. The music that we’re playing is about decision-making. It’s about knowing to go somewhere different, knowing when to stay in a place, to let something simmer.

I feel sometimes it’s easy to write a lot of music and then get so glued to the paper that it’s hard to get away from what you know and just play and let other people into your world. Even though we’ll be working from the same material, it will be very different each night as we build the music together, whatever that thing is.

TJG: What are some of the methods that you’re using in the various pieces to facilitate the kinds of open and flexible interactions that you’re seeking?

JF: For one thing, it’s in the instrumentation. There’s no bass player, and I’m playing a lot of different keyboards. I don’t know if you’ve seen music being put together in a studio before, but this project is a kind of live studio production, in a way. We’re all live producers on stage, building up each piece. At one point, I’ll introduce a part of a piece, and then Eric builds on top of that. Then Kate has a place where she can introduce another theme, and so it’s one continuous process. It feels a bit like we’re all painting together. Even with only three people, there are a bunch of different textures that we can explore. At different points, Kate will be doing some spoken word, and can sing about different subjects, so there’s a big mixture of different ideas that we can reshape as we go.

TJG: In this kind of open musical environment, I feel a big concept is that of instigation—who has the ability to make a change and how they go about doing it. Is this something that feels natural in the group, or have you devised different strategies to encourage this behavior?

JF: That’s a great question. I’ve been playing with vibraphonist Stefon Harris for several years. He has a brilliant way of explaining this idea in a TED Talk—it’s basically that every idea is valid. Herbie Hancock talks about this, too. There’s a video where he tells a story about this time he’s playing with Miles Davis and plays a wrong chord. Herbie feels terrible, but then Miles plays something in response that makes Herbie’s “wrong” chord make sense.

For me, that all comes down to trust. Whenever I play, I want everyone in the band to feel like equals. I might bring in the music, but I trust everybody to play the way they play. When there’s a lot of trust and everyone is really listening, I find the music starts to play itself. In that context, nothing is ever wrong—no one is asked to justify what they played, we just keep going together.

TJG: In this instrumentation, you have a lot of control over the harmonic palette, while Eric can add a lot of very present textures as well. What are some of the ways that Kate can assert herself into the textural conversation? Is she using an effects rig for instance?

JF: Kate’s an integral part of the whole thing. She definitely has some pedals, which plays into the concept that this piece is kind of a live studio production. Volume or power is never a pre-requisite to instigate something, for me. If we’re all really listening, even the softest idea can change the direction of the music.

TJG: You mentioned that Kate is doing some spoken word elements. What’s the lyrical content in the piece and who’s responsible for it?

JF: Going along with the idea of “react,” the lyrics are based on my own reactions to different events in my life. Some of the lyrics that were about falling in love, growing up, moving to New York. A lot of the lyrics are me talking to myself, in a way, or talking to a younger me, giving my younger self advice. So I came to Kate with these different lyrics, but she has a lot of leeway to improvise on them. Whenever I work with a vocalist, I don’t like to be completely prescriptive in terms of lyrics. It’s more a starting place, in the same way that a chord chart is just a starting place for improvisation. I want vocalists to add their stamp.

The Jazz Gallery 2018 Residency Commission Series presents James Francies’s R3ACT at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, July 21, and Sunday, July 22, 2018. The group features Mr. Francies on piano and keyboards, Eric Harland on drums, and Kate Kay Es on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.