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.”
One of the many reasons Francies made a life in New York his mission was the hope for an opportunity to play with his mentors, many of whom are Houston-born artists themselves.
“In Houston, I used to always watch videos of people playing in New York on the Smalls late cam, or on YouTube,” says Francies, “guys like Taylor [Eigsti], Stefon Harris, Kendrick [Scott], Eric Harland and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. And once I got to New York, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, these are the people I’ve been looking up to for so long.’ All of sudden I was sharing the stage with them.”
Francies feels fortunate to have begun working almost immediately after he settled in New York, continuing his hometown legacy in a new city by working with many players who have become a part of the Houston-meets-New York sound, including mentor Chris Dave, who took him on his first European tour. But as he played with more and more musicians from myriad backgrounds, Francies found more opportunities for collaboration and experimentation. And at 19, he began what would become a significant musical association, playing with The Roots.
“I remember my first gig with them,” says Francies. “They’re all about—especially with ?uestlove—finding something and sticking to it. I feel like, in jazz, they keep playing a bunch of stuff and it’s cool, but it’s good to have some sort of base and build off of that. Playing with The Roots, it’s like many guys playing at the same time, but it sounds like one tight band.”
As a piano player, Francies has no shortage of figurative explanations for his unique style of playing. His ability to sit with a groove, apparently departing from but always returning to it, developed as a result of working with The Roots and recording with artists like Chance the Rapper and Kodak Black.
“I’ve done a lot of work in hip hop, and a lot of the stuff is samples, and a lot of the samples are loops—they repeat, over and over,” he says. “That’s kind of what makes them one of the foundations of making a track. So I sometimes try to think of myself, in certain situations, as a sample. I try to play like a sample.
“I remember my first time playing with ?uestlove, at my first rehearsal, he said, ‘Hey, just lay back a little bit more on the beat, and just find a part and really commit to it.’ For me, when I’m playing behind people, I try to do that. In certain moments, I’ll have something and stick with it; that way, you create a foundation. Someone else might play something on top of that, and someone else might play something on top of that—pretty soon you have this nice, coherent thing for someone to float on top of.”
But the groove is never a static concept, even when it’s a looped sample; time always moves. For Francies, the freedom to play around, depart, return and stretch directly relates to establishing a frame of reference with the time. “If you take a clock, for instance, it shows 60 seconds in a minute,” he says.
“It’s always going to be 60 seconds in a minute, whether you count, one-two-three—all the way to 60. If you count to 60, you have 60 beats in a minute, but [within that minute] you could also count to 90, and [those 60 seconds] are still going. Once you have that frame of reference, that’s where time in music comes from. All time is, is something that reoccurs—it’s the same between each hit. Once you have that foundation, you can take it somewhere else; as long as you know where that pulse is, it still makes sense and you can justify it.”
If pulse is the structural foundation of Francies’ music, harmony is brick layered on brick. Early exposure to a variety of classical composers piqued a curiosity in Francies, compelling him to take a closer listen to what exactly he was hearing.
“I love classical music,” he says. “One of my favorite composers—if not my favorite—is Igor Stravinsky. Growing up listening to how he orchestrated things—even Chopin, but more Stravinsky—I used to take scores and print pieces and just really analyze them to see how harmony works. Even now, I still do.”
Long hours spent with pages of Stravinsky and Chopin allowed him to absorb how their distinctive harmonies move. But as the young piano player with perfect pitch began to apply those orchestral concepts to his own quartet arrangements and original compositions, the question turned from “What?” to “Why?”
“I would listen to [those orchestral pieces]—I still do—and always ask why something works,” he says. “‘Why would this happen—how did he make it work?’” As he began exploring those relationships within orchestral harmony, Francies began dealing with the piano itself as a full orchestra, whether he was comping or soloing.
“I try to move things around between different hands,” he says. “On the piano, you have all these different octaves, and it’s really like having an orchestra at your disposal, that you can control. And a lot of that has to do with touch, articulation, phrasing and how you react to things.”
When he does grab the mic, Francies maintains a frame of reference that deals with every component of the performance as part of a greater expression. “I don’t think of it as, ‘Okay, now it’s my time to solo,’ I think of it more as a conversation,” he says.
“I know that’s clichéd because people say it all the time, but for me it really is. I listen to what’s going on, I might highlight something that’s in one place and then use that to base it off of something else that I’ll play. I’ll just listen and throw an idea out there, then see how people react to it with another idea. You’re just filling in the holes—it’s a lot of in-the-moment reactions. A lot of my favorite players, I love the way they think—their decisions. Decision making is such a big thing for me. It’s spontaneous but, at the same time, it’s still related [to what’s happening]. There’s nothing random—it’s relating things.”
Because he focuses on exploring musical connections, and finding ways for one expression to enhance another, strict genre distinctions don’t interest Francies—least of all the ones other people have imposed on him and his peers.
“It’s all about connecting the dots,” he says. “I just came off a tour with Chris Potter Trio, and the next day I was at Madison Square Garden with The Roots, and the next day I’m playing the Standard—I don’t know—it’s all of the above! And it’s not like I’m just happily doing it; I think I’m fully committed to whatever genres people want to put me in.”
Next month, the 22-year-old will head into the studio to record his first album as a leader under Blue Note, a quartet album that features fellow Houstonians Mike Moreno, Jeremy Dutton and Burniss Earl Travis and includes Joel Ross, Chris Turner and a very special guest. This recording will be a culmination of connections between artistic influences and personal experiences that have come to define Francies’ evolving expression.
Of his time with The Roots, Chris Potter, his hometown church in Houston and all the gigs he’s played since he came to New York, Francies summarizes the direction of his own music in a few words: “I try to combine all those elements,” he says. “It’s part of who I am. I try not to think in genres. I feel like there’s some little thing in between all of this, and I guess that’s where I am.”
James Francies Kinetic plays The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, December 15th and 16th, 2017. The group features Mr. Francies on piano, Charles Altura on guitar, Matt Penman on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.