James Francies Looks To Defy The Odds


James Francies is among the 25 artists DownBeat thinks will help shape jazz in the decades to come.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

​With Flight, his spirited debut album released by Blue Note in 2018, pianist James Francies avoided musical predictability with a compelling convergence of sounds and storytelling. The opening track, “Leaps,” begins with a classical piano feel tinted by gospel before erupting with keyboard/guitar unison lines. The program offers appealing eclecticism—straight-up lyrical beauties, r&b flavors and three divergent vocal tracks—which is precisely what the Houston native wanted his first album to do.

“I was coming from my own place by doing my own little thing,” the 25-year-old said from his home in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Francies noted that he titled the Derrick Hodge-produced Flight for a reason. “Think of the Wright Brothers and how everyone called them crazy for thinking you could put a human in the air,” he said, laughing.

“It’s all about defying the odds. That is me. Some people think their first album should be straightahead, where you have to play ‘Giant Steps’ and a bunch of standards, you have to check off what you need to do, and then play a bunch of notes. But the big picture for me was to show myself as an artist and to express how diverse I can be—acoustically and electrically.”

He has became a highly sought-after collaborator, working with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, singer José James and drummer Questlove, as well as touring with Pat Metheny’s band Side-Eye during the past two years.

Francies laughed as he explained how he first met the iconic guitarist. “I got up the courage to introduce myself to [Metheny] on an airport tarmac,” he recalled. “I told him I was a huge fan and that his music had inspired me. And Pat replied, ‘I know who you are. I’ve been watching your videos since you were in high school. Stop over my house and let’s play.’”

Francies proudly recognizes that he is part of the next generation of significant alumni from Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts and Visual Arts, following in the footsteps of keyboardists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran. “I have big shoes to fill,” he said. “Houston is the city that has a hybrid of musicians whose music can’t be categorized. They just play music from their personalities. Jazz needs more people who are being themselves and not being shaped into what came before.” DB

This story originally was published in the November 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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