A New Golden Age Of Pianists

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But Francies knows classic groove music, too. Among the album’s 10 originals is one cover—a complex, drop-dead version of Rufus’ pure funk anthem “Ain’t Nobody,” which Francies arranged in high school. “I wanted it to sound like Chaka Khan and Rufus at the Jazz Standard, with them swinging on weekends and doing r&b during the week,” Francies said. “So, I put an ’80s-sounding filter on the vocals, moved beats around and added extra chords here and there.”

Khan heard the cut and was so impressed that she wrote to Francies to express her admiration for his work. “To have her give her blessing was a very special moment for me,” he said.

Looking ahead, Francies’ career will ride on the momentum that Flight has generated. First, he’s wrapping up a leg of European gigs with bassist Marcus Miller, and stateside, he’ll play with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon before joining Pat Metheny’s trio for an August tour. He’ll finish out the year on the Blue Note Anniversary Tour with his own trio, featuring vocalist Kandace Springs and saxophonist James Carter. In and around all of that gigging, though, he plans to find time to work on new recordings, one with singer YEBBA and another with Chris Potter, both of whom turned out stellar guest artist spots on Flight.

But Francies hesitates to predict where his success ultimately might take him: “I create music just because I love it,” he said.

For the pianists here, at some point early in their careers they each managed to make the leap from local phenomenon to international notoriety—mostly through awards, competitions or label endorsements. Not every artist gets these opportunities, but for those who do, being ready for them pays off.

IN PREPARING FOR THE THELONIOUS MONK INTERNATIONAL JAZZ PIANO COMPETITION LAST DECEMBER, Liya Grigoryan had only one quick rehearsal with the bassist and drummer who would be her sideplayers on stage. There were 13 other semifinalists from around the globe selected to compete; Grigoryan—born in Armenia and raised in Russia—was the only woman in the bunch.

“You can play the competition solo, but I wanted to play in the trio setting because it was more comfortable for me,” she said. “And I played jazz standards because our rehearsal was only 20 minutes, and it would not make a lot of sense to do my music. So, I just picked my favorites.”

Performing in the Monk competition and hearing U.S. jazz stars like Herbie Hancock play live opened Grigoryan up to new possibilities in her career. “It was really inspiring to be in this world, seeing what it’s all about, because living in Europe, you’re so far away from it,” she said. “This competition was one of the best experiences of my musical life so far.”

These words are meaningful coming from Grigoryan, who’s no stranger to competitions. By the time she participated in the Monk competition, she’d already won several high-profile international music prizes for young artists, including the Leiden Jazz Award and Keep an Eye Foundation’s Jazz Award in the Netherlands, and the Jazz by the Pool scholarship in Italy. She’d also spent a year at the competitive Manhattan School of Music as part of an exchange program with the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, the institution from which she graduated with a master’s degree in 2016.

“It sounds weird, but I [didn’t start out with] classical training. I started with jazz,” Grigoryan said in response to a compliment on her technique. “I started at an incredible jazz school for kids in my hometown in Russia when I was 5. My piano teacher said it was important to have classical [knowledge], so I always studied both. But I did better in jazz. [Classical training] helped me to become a good jazz player, though, to be able to control my sound.”

When Grigoryan started to improvise early in her training, her teacher urged her to see improvisation as a form of composition. That kind of understanding sparked Grigoryan’s deeper interest in writing her own music. “I was maybe 12 when I started to compose,” she said. “But [it wasn’t until] I was in conservatory in Amsterdam and I had a trio that I was writing for and performing ... [and] I could say, ‘OK, I’m a composer.’”

Grigoryan released her debut as leader, Liya Grigoryan Trio, on the Amsterdam-based Flea Boy in 2016. This smart, tight album—a four-tune EP of originals—reveals her advanced approach to writing for improvising musicians. On her tunes, rhythmic structures predominate, even as Grigoryan stretches out into elegant melodicism; she likes to keep the mix simple, the busy-ness to a minimum. “Sometimes, I have a strong rhythmic idea, and to add a strong melodic idea would be too much,” she explained. “I love to experiment, but I stick to one or two things in my writing.”

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