At 23, pianist and keyboardist James Francies is already something of a familiar musical presence. (Among other things, he’s toured with Jeff “Tain” Watts and recorded frequently with Questlove.) Nevertheless, his debut recording as a leader, Flight, is startling in its deep, fully formed vision. The view of jazz, hip-hop, electronica and contemporary R&B as one insoluble aesthetic, so progressive and exciting just a few years ago, seems for Francies to be his point of departure.
What’s remarkable is how far he’s already progressed from that base. His piano’s graceful, often stately dance around the herky-jerky rhythms of “Reciprocal” is the sound of a confident, self-possessed musician. On the album’s three tenderest, most lyrical tunes — “Leaps,” “Sway” and “A Lover and a Fighter” — he offers his most dexterous solos. On “Leap,” especially, his gymnastics bring the song to a satisfying emotional climax. In so doing, Francies demonstrates not only that he can go all out, but also that he knows when to.
Elsewhere, Francies blends acoustic and electronic keyboards with Mike Moreno’s warm guitar tone to create washes of ambient jazz (“ANB,” “Dark Purple”) or spurs bassist Burniss Travis II and drummer Jeremy Dutton into hectic, runaway grooves (“Crib,” “Dreaming”), with saxophonist Chris Potter and vibraphonist Joel Ross coming along for the ride. Each track displays a kind of tasteful audacity that never veers into flamboyance. Indeed, Francies is downright restrained on “My Day Will Come,” where he accompanies the soulful female vocalist YEBBA, who takes centerstage while Francies vamps underneath, his solo just lightly decorating that vamp.
Flight is a stark example of youthful maturity and craftsmanship, but it’s even more than that: It suggests possibilities for both Francies’ future and that of jazz overall. In a word, it’s exciting. —Michael J. West