When James Francies delivered Flight, his acclaimed 2018 Blue Note leader debut, the pianist and composer had already made a name for himself with fellow jazzmen Stefon Harris, Pat Metheny, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, as well as producer Mark Ronson, the Roots, and Lauryn Hill. Francies, a Houston, Texas native, shares (with many of his generation's musical peers) a willingness to extend the parameters of modern jazz with harmonics, textures, and dynamics grafted from R&B, hip-hop, electronic, and pop forms. But unlike them, Francies' musical iconography disregards artificially imposed genre boundaries because he understands they are all linked parts of the Western scale and system. He can stretch, reshape, and break rules because he understands just how large the umbrella is.
The musical backbone on Purest Form is created by Francies with longtime Houston compatriots bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Jeremy Dutton. Further, he enlisted his labelmates, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross, as well as guitarist Mike Moreno and vocalists Elliott Skinner, Peyton, and Bilal.
Opener "Adoration" is a brief soundscape on which Francies' piano is framed by blurry electronic keyboards and his wife Brenda Francies reading a poem. It's a tad disorienting, but strangely elegant. "Levitate" showcases the trio aggressively engaging with interlocking rhythmic pulses and harmonic vamps as overdubbed pianos and careening synths drive, and are driven by, rumbling basslines, triple-timed drums, and skittering loops. "Transfiguration" weaves fleet piano figures through euphoric modalism and modern classical composition as wordless vocals, ambient keys, and the rhythm section elevate them then jarringly interrupt. Wilkins enters with his alto and pushes the whole track toward transcendence. Peyton, another Houston native, lends her sultry voice to the dreamy, post-spiritual soul in "Blown Away," while Elliot Skinner's vocal governs a central meld of soul, gospel, and pop in the lilting ballad "Rose Water." The inclusion of "My Favorite Things'' here is anything but standard. Delivered with a choppy double-timed tempo, it's chock-full of tight twists and turns from the trio with Ross, Moreno, and Wilkins. Everyone offers inspired solos for this wildly inventive reading on stun. "Stratus" finds Francies and his keyboards engaging a string quartet before getting atmospheric and funky on the summery, futurist jazz-funk that is "713" (a Houston area code). "Where We Stand" is woolly, spidery, tripped-out, electro post-bop with Wilkins and Ross adding heft to the trio. Its knotty syncopated rhythms recall Varese and electro producer Kaidi Tatham, while the twin influences of Andrew Hill and Zappa are reflected in its intricately rendered harmonic approach. "Eyes Wide Shut" features Bilal in a collision of vanguard jazz, gritty indie rock, and neo-soul. Purest Form is far more diverse -- and unsettling -- than its predecessor, but in all the right ways. Francies showcases his vast creativity and imagination with uncommon breadth and depth in cutting across artificial boundary lines while integrating them in a bold new music of his own design.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo