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About James Francies
Few jazz players have experienced the meteoric rise to prominence in their youth that pianist and composer James Francies did. Possessed of a crystalline tone and deeply syncopated, polyrhythmic approach to harmonic architecture, the New York City-based pianist was already an in-demand sideman and touring musician for artists ranging from Chris Potter and Pat Metheny to Chris Dave's Drumheadz and the Roots, all before his 23rd birthday. While Flight, his 2018 Blue Note leader debut has been celebrated, his work with Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Kodak Blac, and Jose James has won him a place in the pop, R&B, and hip-hop worlds.
Francies was born in Houston, Texas and began playing piano with classical training at age five. Thanks to his parents, he simultaneously received an education in Houston culture via the music of the church and classic R&B. He was blessed with perfect pitch and synesthesia (the ability to hear in colors). By all accounts, he was a prodigy. He attended his first jazz concert at age six (by fellow Houston native, pianist Joe Sample) and his course was clear even at that tender age. Francies began studying jazz in junior high, though his influences then were deemed surprising by teachers and peers. While pianists such as Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Taylor Eigsti were prominent, Francies also absorbed the technique and compositional practices of electric guitarists such as Allan Holdsworth and Mike Moreno and trumpet aces ranging from Nicholas Payton and Freddie Hubbard to Roy Hargrove and Lee Morgan. He attended the city's prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (previously attended by Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Kendrick Scott, Beyoncé, and Chris Dave). His tenure at HSPVA primed him for the vocation of professional musician. While there, he won the Ruth and Eli Nadel Scholarship Award at Stanford Jazz Workshop (2012-2013) and a full scholarship to Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was also awarded the Moran Scholarship Award from pianist and 2010 MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran. Francies got to play with the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, the Thelonious Monk Institute All-Star Jazz Sextet, and the Grammy Jazz Session Combo. His participation helped to earn Francies a full scholarship to Manhattan's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
While earning his undergraduate degree, he studied with NEA jazz master and pianist Joanne Brackeen. Francies began to circulate on the New York jazz scene, securing a standing gig in drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' live group. Watts proved an invaluable mentor, guiding Francies' tour through the benefits and pitfalls of the music business; the protege subsequently branched out to tour and play club and touring gigs on his own and with Metheny and Potter. Along the way, he encountered Roots drummer ?uestlove. The pair became fast friends and the drummer, impressed with the caliber of Francies' playing, arranging, and composing, enlisted him as a replacement for the Roots' in-demand keyboardist James Poyser for shows and appearances he couldn't make. These included several stints on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Thanks to ?uestlove, Francies also participated in the Roots-produced Hamilton cast recording. In addition, the drummer recruited him as a co-composer for the score of the feature film Vincent N' Roxxy.
In late 2017, Francies signed to Blue Note Records and began recording his leader debut with co-producer (and Robert Glasper Experiment bassist) Derrick Hodge. For Flight, Francies composed or co-composed all but one of the set's eleven tracks. He called on the assistance of mentors such as Potter and Moreno, alongside vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Burniss Travis II, and drummers Jeremy Dutton and Mike Mitchell, as well as three guest vocalists — YEBBA, Chris Turner, and Kate Kelsey-Sugg — on a track each. Flight was released to blanket critical acclaim in October and subsequently entered the upper rungs of the jazz charts. In addition to supporting the recording, Francies collaborated with the Roots' emcee, Black Thought, on a Broadway show in late 2018.
- Houston, Texas
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