Purest Form (Blue Note)

James Francies

Released May 21, 2021

JazzTimes Top 30 Jazz Albums of 2021





Since his debut album Flight entranced listeners in 2018, pianist-producer James Francies has expanded personal explorations of sound bending and orchestral approaches to the music. Collaborations across stylistic realms — including those with Childish Gambino, Pat Metheny, Mark Ronson, The Roots, YEBBA, Chris Potter, Common, Eric Harland, Marcus Miller, DJ Dahi and Ms. Lauryn Hill — have enhanced his development and refined his sound. In issuing Purest Form, his second Blue Note release, Francies accesses intimate chambers of his artistry across 14 tracks, interpreting love, grief, frailty, and fortitude.

Francies’ expression blooms across false borders of genre and style. He nurtures a celestial fascination with melody and texture. “Music, in its purest form, is an honest space we’re trying to get to where there are no preconceived ideas of what we think something should sound like,” says Francies. “When you really tap into who you are on the inside, musically and as a person, that energy supersedes anything else.”

The Houston native-turned-New Yorker spent the past year and a half planning each component of Purest Form, down to song sequence. “I really took my time with it,” he says. The album’s sole producer, Francies spent many hours sending ideas and raw elements back and forth with mixing engineer Jason Rostkowski who served as co-recording engineer with Josh Guinta at GSI Studios in Chelsea. With similar setups at Francies’ home studio and GSI, the process of remote mixing heightened accuracy and nuance. “We spent several months dialing everything in and mixing it,” he says. “It was a super thorough process.”

Francies’ sonic marksmanship radiates from the first fade-in. “Adoration” summons an immersive world that shapeshifts through the recording. The track features spoken word from Francies’ beloved wife Brenda, her voice submerged in waves of resonance. “Levitate” spotlights interlocking lyricism and sparking pulses of collective intuition among the album’s core trio, frequent Blue Note stablemates Burniss Travis on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. For more than a decade, the three Houston-raised artists have been playing together and developing alongside one another. Throughout the high-velocity track, they interpret snaky arcs of melody and rhythmic subversions with fire and grace. “Transfiguration” welcomes longtime collaborator and fellow Blue Note artist Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone. Following Francies as lead improviser, he spins a sonic kaleidoscope of lines and lamentation.

Appearances from fellow Houston native, guitarist Mike Moreno and Chicago-grown New Yorker and Blue Note artist, vibraphonist Joel Ross serve the record’s soulful harmonic depth and textural layering. Ross performs a blistering solo on “Where We Stand” while Moreno gravels his distinct tone on “Eyes Wide Shut” as Francies plays into the liquid ether. All five artists take the lead on “My Favorite Things,” an arrangement Francies wrote at age 15. “I love just demolishing songs that don’t need to be touched,” he says, “but I still touch them [laughs].” He and Dutton decided together that everyone would solo on the recording. “All of us are best friends,” says Francies. “So we thought, ‘This’ll be the longest track on the album, but we’ll all get a chance to just play.’”

Because Francies’ aesthetic is as orchestral as it is melodic, Purest Form unveils creative partnerships with some of the music’s most compelling vocalists. Peyton, Francies’ former classmate at HSPVA, lends her ethereal presence and songwriting talent to “Blown Away.” After receiving the song from Francies, Booker sent it back to him, fully realized. “It felt like a perfect collaboration,” he says. “I think she’s the next great singer out of Houston.”

Fellow Texan Elliott Skinner and GRAMMY Award-winning artist Bilal also appear on Purest Form, each composing original lyrics for their respective tunes. “Rose Water” serves Skinner’s unyielding vulnerability. A kind of resonant whisper at times, his voice befits Francies’ tender luminescence. “He’s such an incredible singer,” says Francies, “and I was really hearing a male voice for the song.” Francies and Bilal co-wrote “Eyes Wide Shut,” the album’s rock anthem, seven years earlier, and recorded it remotely while Bilal was at home in Morocco.

Named for Houston’s longstanding area code, “713” serves the trio’s intrinsic connection. Francies colors in and outside the lines, taking bold chances in performance and production. Evoking those mysterious paradoxes — dense and weightless, laid back and flexed, sparse and crowded — the trio sinks into a groove. Buoyed by Travis’ fluid foundation, Dutton selects moments to meet Francies’ netting of production with his signature matrices of patterns and articulation.

Lo-fi and mood-bending, “Melting” reflects Francies’ breadth as a songwriter and producer. “I feel like I’m in two different worlds,” he says. “I’m using whatever tools I have in my bag to get my voice and what I’m hearing in my head out on record.”

From a combination of tireless dedication and a little magic, Purest Form came together at a challenging time for Francies. His mother Shawana passed away a day after he finalized the album. “It was as though she knew,” he says. Shawana, who’s played a critical role throughout Francies’ musical development, called him into her room after he’d already composed “Still Here,” one of the album’s two string quartet interludes. In her shimmering vocal, she laid out a musical idea that complemented what he’d written, even though she’d never heard the music. “It’s almost as though she’s singing in tempo with strings she doesn’t even hear,” says Francies.

His father James Francies, Sr. shares a stirring spoken word contribution on “Freedmen’s Town.” Reading excerpts from his own memoir, Francies, Sr. discusses the stark resonance of generation loss as a result of systemic racism in the United States. “I didn’t have to do much,” says Francies. “Everything, even the cadences, worked so perfectly.”

For Francies, Purest Form is more than a recording. It’s an essence. “I hope that what I was trying to go for — an immersive, multidimensional experience — really reaches people. I hope that for 56 minutes, they step into this world of sounds and textures. That’s the idea. And [laughs] I hope it sounds good on every speaker.”

Track Listing:

1. Adoration (James Francies) 01:57

2. Levitate (James Francies) 05:07

3. Transfiguration (James Francies) 04:00

4. Blown Away (James Francies) featuring Peyton 02:45

5. Rose Water (James Francies / Elliott Skinner feat. Elliott Skinner 03:23

6. My Favorite Things (Oscar Hammerstein II / Richard Rodgers) 07:32

7. Stratus (James Francies) 00:45

8. 713 (James Francies) 05:21

9. Melting (James Francies / Kate Kelsey-Sugg) 04:14

10. Where We Stand (James Francies) 05:11

11. Freedmen’s Town (James Francies) 05:31

12. Eyes Wide Shut (James Francies / Bilal Oliver) feat. Bilal 04:34

13. Still Here (James Francies) 01:29

14. Oasis (James Francies) 03:53


James Francies: keyboards, piano, vocals, spoken word

Immanuel Wilkins: alto saxophone

Joel Ross: vibraphone

Mike Moreno: guitar

Burniss Travis III: bass

Jeremy Dutton: drums

Tia Allen: viola

Marta Bagratuni: cello

Francesca Dardani, Sulamit Gorski: violin

DJ Dahi: drum programming

Peyton Booker, Elliott Skinner, Bilal Oliver: vocals

Brenda Francies, James Francies Sr., Shawana Francies: spoken word

Produced by James Francies
Co-produced by DJ Dahi (track 9)
Recorded by Jason Rostkowski & Josh Giunta at GSI Strudios, New York, NY, except track 7 recorded by Zach Brown at Electric Lady Studios, New York, NY
Mixed by Jason Rostkowski
Mastered by Ian Sefchick
Original artwork by Ben Heim
Design by Meat and Potatoes, Inc.

This album is dedicated to my mother Shawana Francies.


With his 2018 debut Flight, pianist James Francies signaled a fresh, contemporary, and potentially world-shaking vision for the next generation of jazz. Follow-up Purest Form finds that vision in bloom. Much will likely be made of his use of electronic textures and effects, and of organic drums (by way of Jeremy Dutton, who forms the album’s core trio along with bassist Burniss Travis) to play EDM-type beats. The real excitement, though, lies in Francies’ ear for displacement.

By displacement, I mean that he has a knack for putting spaces and harmonic and rhythmic turns in unexpected places. It’s by turns obvious—as on “Levitate” or “Where We Stand,” where both melody and groove are built around glitchy, accent-shifting beats—and subtle, as with the odd chords that end-stop Bilal’s vocal lines in “Eyes Wide Shut,” or vinyl-record static that becomes a regular, but offbeat, percussion layer on “713.”

It can all be disorienting, the more so because of Francies’ often blinding speed. When vibraphonist Joel Ross joins in (“My Favorite Things,” “Where We Stand”), the music can evoke Frank Zappa’s Synclavier period: the stuff he thought too fast and complex for humans to play. Yet with repeat listens, disruptive rhythms like those on “Transfiguration” ultimately feel organic, even satisfying when set against Immanuel Wilkins’ alto solo. Those jarring details secured, more superficial shifts—e.g., into string quartet arrangements (“Stratus,” “Still Here”)—are easily absorbed.

Let none of these subversions distract from the fundamental talent Francies deploys. His ultra-fast runs can sometimes sound like cheap glissandi; in fact they contain deep, knowledgeable packets of jazz language mindful of Hancock, Kirkland, and Glasper. Behind the self-conscious electronic distortions of “Melting” is one of the most haunting compositions in recent memory. Francies is so good, he has to mask just how good he is.

Michael J. West (JazzTimes)