High Velocity And Control: Jazz Pianist James Francies Takes His First 'Flight' The up-and-coming pianist has crossing boundaries, taking his jazz chops to hip-hop and pop sessions. Now, he's released his debut album.

High Velocity And Control: Jazz Pianist James Francies Takes His First 'Flight'

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The 23-year-old jazz pianist James Francies has his musical fingerprints all over the place. He has recorded a Grammy-winning single with Chance the Rapper. He's toured with Lauryn Hill and Pat Metheny. And for the past four years, he's filled in on "The Tonight Show" with the house band The Roots. Now Francies has released his own album, and our own Walter Ray Watson has this profile.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Here's what the pace of James Francies' life sounds like right now.


WATSON: Francies is moving very fast through music circles, doing an ever-widening variety of gigs. And to keep up with demand, he says he's flying a bunch.

JAMES FRANCIES: It just felt like you're on a plane at 40,000 feet, traveling at, like, 600 miles an hour.

WATSON: He calls his first album "Flight."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On behalf of all of us here, we'd like to be the first to welcome you to Houston.

WATSON: This tune is a shout-out to his hometown. It's called "Crib."

FRANCIES: When we say crib, we just know that's Houston. You know, you think about Frenchy's or, like, Shipleys or just barbecue, just food and just anything Houston. We just - like, yeah, that's crib.

WATSON: That's where he started playing at 4. His parents, a couple of non-musicians, took him to hear a concert at their church. It featured the late pianist, composer and family friend Joe Sample, one of the Jazz Crusaders.

FRANCIES: And he was the first jazz pianist I ever saw live. And it was incredible. And Joe Sample wrote me a note saying, always love your music. And I was 5 years old. I will never forget that.

WATSON: A framed poster from the concert still hangs at home.

FRANCIES: He always - he used to call me Little Oscar actually.

WATSON: After jazz great Oscar Peterson, someone who also played lots of notes. Here's what Francies sounded like at 17 at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.


WATSON: He was ambitious. He made audition tapes like this one with hopes a summer jazz camp would accept him.

JASON MORAN: I remember hearing James when he was still in high school - maybe a junior in high school and thinking, like, oh, wow, this kid has it together.

WATSON: That's pianist Jason Moran. No slouch himself, he's artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. And as it turns out, he also went to the same high school in Houston as Francies. Moran's a mentor and a fan.

MORAN: James has the ability to do things with his hands. You know, at one part, it's extremely technically challenging what he is able to accomplish. The other part, he has this right hand that really can make the upper register kind of sing.


WATSON: In addition to being an accomplished pianist, James Francies says he's been writing his own tunes since he was 8.

FRANCIES: But they didn't really get good until, like, last week.


WATSON: Most of the compositions on his debut album are instrumentals.


WATSON: But he co-wrote one of the vocals with another 23-year-old, newcomer Abbey Smith. She uses the stage name YEBBA.


YEBBA: (Vocalizing).

WATSON: They wrote the song "My Day Will Come" after her mother's death by suicide.


YEBBA: (Singing) I thought that I had everything to myself.

He's so fierce but, like, so gentle at the same time when he plays. And so that really kind of helped me step back and just focus on the simple things that I wanted to say 'cause the ease was there. So instead of me trying to be, like, all this pain, all this pain, all this pain, he helped me to release hope.


YEBBA: (Singing) And, love, our day will come, and I'll see the sun. And it all just might come crashing right back down to the ground. But I will stand again, my friend.

WATSON: James Francies is composing songs for YEBBA's debut recording in addition to touring for his new record and playing as a sideman with other jazz artists in New York.

FRANCIES: I mean, I'll always be a jazz pianist at heart, you know?

WATSON: There's a but in there.

FRANCIES: I feel I just have so much more to offer in terms of the songwriting, performing, producing. It's just - I just see it all as music, you know?

WATSON: James Francies hopes to carry listeners on their own journey into where music is going if, that is, they can keep up with him. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.


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