June 22, 2024

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James Francies Calls Back to Houston with 713: Video, Photo

Keyboardist James Francies emerged on the global scene just eight years ago, but it’s safe to say he hit the ground running. As both an accompanist and a soloist, he’s an improvising juggernaut fluent across many musical dialects — which helps explain the varied credits he has racked up on the bandstand and on record, not only with the likes of Jeff “Tain” Watts, Chris Potter and Pat Metheny but also The Roots, Mark Ronson and Lauryn Hill.

Francies’ 2018 Blue Note debut, Flight, showcased his skills as a bandleader and composer, earning the attention of a diverse cross-section of listeners. On 713 the first single from his forthcoming album Purest Form, he crafts a vivid instrumental tribute to the complexities and diversity contained in his native city of Houston, Tx.

The quality of life in Houston, America’s fifth largest metropolis, exists on a wide spectrum. Its humid subtropical climate, sprawling real estate and multifaceted cultural offerings suggest a locale of teeming possibility. At the same time, an undercurrent of economic and social inequalities — the generational byproduct of segregation and bigotry — persists for many Houstonians, calling out for immediate attention.

Francies sets the cornerstone of “713” with help from his friend and fellow Houston-to-New York transplant, drummer Jeremy Dutton. His deep pocket would be at home under a Houston hip-hop icon like Brad “Scarface” Jordan. In this context, Dutton’s wide drumbeat allows Francies to reveal streams of Art Tatum-esque ornamentation, and a linear harmonic movement that could reflect the ten winding waterways flowing through Houston’s surrounding areas.

Bassist Burniss Travis, meanwhile, has a radar trained acutely on Francies’ every move. His statements are textbook examples of intentionality, clarity and economy. Throughout the composition, the members of the trio move together in a dynamic procession mostly celebratory of their city — until the ending. Francies’ rapid-fire arpeggios at the tune’s conclusion suggest a new tension in the piece that we have not experienced.

Could this be a sonic suggestion of a new, liberated uprising in Houston, poised to replace a crumbling and outmoded conservatism? The listener will have to decide for themselves.

James Francies

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