Pianist James Francies is turning this jazz tradition on its head

Pianist James Francies is turning this jazz tradition on its head

After holding down the low end for some of jazz’s most revered musicians, pianist/keyboardist James Francies figured he should try out the unorthodox configuration in his own music.

The Houston-native has spent much of the past three years touring in bass-less trios led by saxophone great Chris Potter and guitar maestro Pat Metheny, ensembles “essentially built around me playing bass,” Francies said.

Those bands, particularly Metheny’s Side-Eye, required him to lay down bass lines while also creating sumptuous harmonies and deeply textured sonic substrates while ensconced within a bank of keyboards resembling a 747 cockpit.

“I figured, I’ve done this for everyone else, let me see if it works in mine,” said Francies, 28, referring to the recently formed group he brings to California next week for a series of gigs starting Wednesday, Jan. 31 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

“Let’s see if we can flip the whole piano trio upside down,” he said. “I think about Benny Goodman, who had the bass-less trio with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson playing stride piano. How can I incorporate this into a modern situation?”

The trio also plays four shows at SFJAZZ Feb. 1-2 and finishes the Bay Area run at San Jose Jazz’s Break Room Feb. 3. Very much a work in progress, the group features Los Angeles-reared New York drummer Damion Reid, whose credits include albums with Robert Glasper, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Liberty Ellman, and New York guitarist Mike Moreno, a fellow Houstonian with a similarly expansive resume encompassing leading figures in jazz and hip-hop.

A standout talent out of high school, Francies had already cut a brilliant path across multiple scenes by his mid-20s, touring and recording with jazz heavyweights while performing with an impressive array of hip hop and R&B stars, including Lauryn Hill, José James, Common, and NAS. He’s recorded with Childish Gambino, Drake, and Chance the Rapper (on the Grammy-winning hit “No Problem”), and made multiple appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” alongside Questlove.

Like so many of his connections, the friendship with Questlove flowed out of the tight alumni network of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, specifically multi-Grammy winning keyboardist Robert Glasper. Francies has relied on his Houston homies in his own music.

Signed to Blue Note Records, he released “Flight,” his first album as a leader, at 23, which established him as a keyboard force. The album was built on a trio that started working together in high school, with drummer Jeremy Dutton and bassist Burniss Travis.

Mike Moreno, who graduated from Houston’s HSPVA about two decades before Francies, played a crucial role in easing the pianist into the New York scene when he moved there. It wasn’t long before Francies landed some heavyweight gigs.

He was 18 when he connected with drum star Jeff “Tain” Watts in the Canadian Rockies at the Banff Center. They hit it off playing basketball “and he asked if I wanted to play with him in New York,” Francies recalled. He ended up performing with the bandleader widely, and making some of his first recordings, on Watts’ albums “Blue, Vol. 1” and “Blue, Vol. 2” (from 2015 and 2016, respectively).

“Tain is one of my favorite composers and musicians, period,” Francies said. “He’s been such a mentor and supporter. Traveling and playing with him has been a big influence. He writes some beautiful ballads. His melodicism and his orchestrational ear are amazing. That comes from his background playing timpani.”

Francies tends to make a vivid impression on his fellow artists, even players as well-traveled as George Cables. After earning a full scholarship to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music he spent all four years studying with Cables, a noted composer who recorded era-defining albums with jazz legends like Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, and Art Pepper.

Vividly recalling first meeting Francies as a freshman, Cables was duly impressed by the young man’s prodigious technique and flow of ideas. “I thought, OK, so what am I going to show him?” Cables said. “We developed a great relationship, a back and forth. I didn’t have to worry about rudiments, so we were talking about ideas. That’s exciting! As a mentor, you learn as well. Working with someone as talented as James you learn this process of finding out what’s on their mind. What are they looking for?”

With his new bass-less trio, Francies’ quest for new sounds continues.

Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected].


When & where: 7 p.m. Jan. 31 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; $21-$42; www.kuumbwajazz.org; 7 and 8:30 p.m. Feb. 1-2 at SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco; $30; www.sfjazz.org; 8 p.m. Feb. 3 at SJZ Break Room, San Jose; $25; sanjosejazz.org.