James Francies: Purest Form (Blue Note, 2021)

May 23, 2021 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

James Francies: Purest Form

Pianist and composer James Francies has a kaleidoscopic vision that reaches throughout the galaxy. His second album is a sprawling 56-minute expedition that doesn’t always seem like it’s traveling on the same path, but when it connects, there’s little else like it. After a nebulous introduction with narration that’s pretty much beyond comprehension, the mind-blowing “Levitate” is knotty prog-jazz that demonstrates Francies’ skills at making complex arrangements radiate with energy. “Transfiguration” is similar but slightly cooled off, leaving room for a spiky Immanuel Wilkins sax solo. The gorgeous “Blown Away” is a hazy slow jam featuring recent Stones Throw signee Peyton, and Elliott Skinner guests on the even more ethereal “Rose Water”. “My Favorite Things” might seem like a super obvious cover choice, but this 7-minute version is perhaps the most fragmented, deconstructed rendition I’ve ever heard, taking the familiar melody and dropping it down the stairs until it’s bent out of shape, then letting Wilkins and master vibist Joel Ross run with it. After the brief orchestral interlude “Stratus”, “713” is more of a showcase for Francies’ piano playing over laid back but still alert hip-hop beats. Then “Melting” is submerged-in-a-sewer lo-fi R&B that struggles to be heard and understood; the detachment, the “you’re not hearing me” effect is what resonates. Then we’re back to fractured ultra-prog-jazz with “Where We Stand”. After all this far-outness, “Freedmen’s Town” has an unexpectedly direct, personal, and moving narrative from Francies’ father, who talks about growing up in Houston in a poor area which has since been gentrified, then reflecting on how much the world has changed (and stayed the same) during his lifetime. Neo-soul visioniary Bilal guests on “Eyes Wide Shut”, an abrasive alt-rock song which basically sounds like a harder, more claustrophobic Radiohead. “Still Here”, another string quartet interlude, features a cameo from Francies’ mother, and the album ends with “Oasis”, another spacey ballad with obscured, underwater-sounding vocals.

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