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Emily Francis Trio

Emily Francis Trio, Corn Exchange Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, 16/11/2023.

by Ian Mann

November 21, 2023


Francis and her trio certainly won a lot of new friends tonight as they played an entertaining set that embraced a broad variety of musical genres, among them jazz, rock and electronica.

Emily Francis Trio, Corn Exchange Jazz Club, The Corn Exchange, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, 16/11/2023.

Emily Francis – keyboards, Trevor Boxall – electric bass, Jamie Murray - drums

The November Jazz Club event at The Corn Exchange saw a pleasingly large and highly supportive audience converging on the venue for this performance by keyboard player and composer Emily Francis and her trio. It was arguably the largest crowd seen at a jazz event at the Corn Exchange since the visit of saxophonist Xhosa Cole in March 2023. It’s good to see the jazz strand, co-ordinated by Dave Logan, doing so well with many people taking a ‘punt’ and coming along to see artists that they may previously have never heard of. Apart from Dave Logan I seemed to be the only audience member who had actually seen the Emily Francis Trio play live before but they certainly won a lot of new friends tonight as they played an entertaining set that embraced a broad variety of musical genres. Francis was later to speak warmly of Dave Logan, who has been very supportive of the trio and once put them on at Kenilworth Jazz Club during his time there.

Emily Francis was born in Wimborne, Dorset. Her father is a singer and guitarist and the young Emily was performing warm up shows at Poole’s Lighthouse Arts Centre by the age of fourteen. A concert by the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (EST) at the venue was highly inspirational for her and she was also strongly influenced by Brad Mehldau.

She graduated from the Jazz Course at London College of Music in 2011 where she studied piano with Eddie Harvey and the late Pete Saberton.

Francis and bassist Trevor Boxall formed the Emily Francis Trio in 2013 with original drummer Liam Waugh. This line up recorded the first EFT album “The Absent”, which was released to considerable critical acclaim in 2015.  The Jazzmann gave the album a favourable review at the time and also enjoyed a live performance by the trio in Birmingham in early 2016.

“The Absent” album review here;

Birmingham live show review here;

“The Absent” featured Francis variously playing acoustic and electric pianos and synthesiser and placed the focus exclusively on original material. The tunes are credited as being “written, arranged and performed by the Emily Francis Trio”, emphasising the fact that the trio’s music is very much a collaborative creative process.

At the time of “The Absent” album release the trio cited their collective influences as including Herbie Hancock, Jason Rebello, Kenny Garrett, Steely Dan and Brad Mehldau . Elements of all these could be heard in the trio’s music from that time but things have moved on apace since then.

The sound of “The Absent” was largely centred around the acoustic piano but by the time of “Luma”, the trio’s 2022 follow up, there was a much stronger focus on the sounds of electric keyboards. There had also been a change in the drum chair, with Jamie Murray replacing Liam Waugh.

Francis’ fascination with electric keyboard sounds had been fuelled by the final David Bowie album “Blackstar” (2016), which featured a band of New York based jazz musicians led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin. That group’s keyboard player was Jason Lindner and Francis has continued to follow the solo careers of both McCaslin and Lindner.

A 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival double bill featuring Lindner’s Now vs Now project and the American quintet Kneebody, featuring saxophonist Ben Wendel and keyboard player Adam Benjamin, proved to be a seminal experience for Francis. Both Lindner and Benjamin altered the sounds of their Rhodes keyboards via a range of effects pedals, something that has had a profound influence on Francis’ own approach to playing and composing. In an interview with journalist Nick Hasted (Jazzwise Magazine, June 2022) she explained;
“It was the gig that changed my life. It was the first time I’d seen keyboards played like that. Seeing people combining jazz, rock, electronic, improvised, melodic and groovy music was this ‘Eureka!’ moment, there are other people out there making the kind of sounds I hear in my head. What I love about those American bands is that they’re just so hard hitting. They play their arses off! There’s no limits with these guys, in fact the weirder the better”.

Francis began to distance herself from her initial influences in favour of a harder hitting sound. Her early days of playing in function bands also began to feed in.
“Putting on a show is incredibly important”, she told Hasted. “We write what we want but the melody and groove are the main thing and we’re really proud to make the music accessible. I’m always thinking texturally, playing around with synths and outboard effects from my laptop to make the sound even bigger”.

Whilst favourably reviewing the “Luma” album I compared Francis’ new approach with that of bands such as GoGo Penguin and Vels Trio and suggested that she may be seeking out an audience beyond the usual jazz demographic. Francis is certainly aware of both acts but cites modern day prog rock artists such as Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson as more significant influences. Wilson’s keyboard player, the New York born Adam Holzman, a musician who has also worked with Miles Davis, is another musician whose playing has made a considerable impression on Francis. 

In the lengthy gap between the two albums the trio released the Arts Council funded ‘Video EP’ “New Town” in 2017, followed by another bout of touring.  Further video singles were released in 2019/20, with “Idol”,  “Escape From The Echo Chamber” and “Broken Kingdom Part 1”  all subsequently appearing on the “Luma” album. My review of the “Luma” album, from which much of the above biographical detail has been sourced, can be found here;

The trio came to Ross just a few days after a successful EFG London Jazz Festival performance at the 606 Club in Chelsea. Their set list at the Corn Exchange was exactly the same as it had been at ‘The Six’ with the bulk of the material sourced from the “Luma” recording, but with three pieces from “The Absent” also included alongside two newer, as yet unrecorded items.

Francis’ keyboard set up featured a Nord Stage 2 plus a Sequential Prophet 6 synthesiser and an array of effects pedals and other related devices. I would imagine that at venues such as the 606 she probably deploys an acoustic piano as well but tonight the focus was on electric keyboard sounds and the hardware was used to good effect on the opening “After The Rain”, a composition that has yet to be recorded. Sequenced keyboard sounds were combined with a stunning synth solo that had me adding ‘Canterbury style prog’ to my list of possible influences. Again Francis was aware of Soft Machine et al but didn’t regard them as being a particularly significant influence. Nevertheless that synth solo still reminded me of the late, great Alan Gowen (1947-81), of Gilgamesh and National Health fame.

The first of the “Luma” pieces was “Le Tambour, 2.00 AM”, a composition inspired by the threatening atmosphere outside a lairy Paris nightclub in the early hours of the morning. There was a suitably edgy feel about the music with Francis deploying organ and synth sounds as Murray’s sticks clattered against the rims. Electric bass specialist Boxall helped to bring an element of funkiness to the music, his set up also including a range of effects pedals. Francis’ solo saw her adopting an ‘acoustic piano’ sound on the Nord as Murray continued to provide a skittering drum groove.

Also from the “Luma” recording “Escape From The Echo Chamber” featured the kind of dirty, funky electric piano sounds that Francis had heard from Lindner and Benjamin, using them to particularly good effect during the course of her solo. There were also quieter, more reflective episodes, these evoking a kind of dystopian, ‘Bladerunner’ type atmosphere, before the funk and the filth took over once more.

With 2023 representing the tenth anniversary of the founding of EFT the decision has been taken to issue a re-mastered version of “The Absent” on clear vinyl – hands up those of you old enough to remember the first Faust album. To mark the occasion of “The Absent” re-release the trio treated us to a couple of tunes from that release beginning with “Hops ‘n’ Scotch”, introduced by a passage of solo bass from Boxall, this answered by an unaccompanied keyboard passage. The addition of drums saw the establishment of a jazz funk groove that provided the jumping off point for Francis to deliver a searing keyboard solo that mixed electric piano and synth sounds.

Francis had promised us that the two “Absent” tunes would be very different and “Redshift” proved to be a much more gentle affair, a kind of atmospheric ‘space ballad’ featuring the sounds of ‘acoustic’ piano, brushed drums and a Boxall solo that saw him playing his bass guitar with a pick. Francis then took over on ‘acoustic’ piano as the momentum of the music began to build, gradually gaining something of an anthemic quality as Murray moved from brushes to sticks.

Francis informed us that the band intend to record a new EP in early 2024. Among the tracks that will be included is “Don’t Forget To Feed The Orchid”, a prog rock styled composition inspired by early Genesis. This piece featured a song like structure with chiming keyboard arpeggios and rock rhythms. Boxall’s bass solo was reminiscent of players such as Jaco Pastorius and Mark Egan and the first set came to a close with an explosive drum feature from the impressive Jamie Murray. Here was that ‘putting on a show’ element as Francis and the trio took the audience into the break on an energetic high. I’d wondered about how the Ross audience would react to a group that stretches the definitions of jazz but the immediacy of the writing, the skill of the playing and the down to earth warmth of Francis’ personality all combined to ensure that they went down a storm.

Although all compositions are credited to the Emily Francis Trio both Francis and Boxall write separately, with their compositional ideas later developed into the finished product by the entire band. Boxall tends to contribute the funkier, groove based numbers and the second set commenced with his composition “Trunk”, the title an amalgam of the words “Trev” and “funk”.  The tune was recorded on “The Absent” album where it features an impressive guest appearance from guitarist (and oud player) Stefanos Tsourelis. Tonight’s trio version featured funky bass grooves, solid drumming and Headhunters inspired Rhodes and synth sounds. Murray delivered another powerful drum feature and there was also an unaccompanied bass feature from composer Boxall.

From the “Luma” album “The Kite & The Crow”  is a three part composition that describes the territorial battles between a kite and a crow in the back garden of the home Francis and Boxall share in Ascot. Francis sees this ‘avian battle’ as a parallel to similar disputes in human society, with the two protagonists eventually coming to some sort of resolution by simply ignoring each other. Dating from the lockdown period the foundation of the piece comes from a Boxall bass line that was subsequently developed by Francis. Musically the composition borrows from the legacy of prog rock, particularly through its use of complex time signatures and odd meter grooves, with Boxall and drummer Murray rising to the rhythmic challenges with aplomb.  Francis’ keyboard soloing deployed both electric piano and synth sounds before the piece eventually resolved itself with a more anthemic passage in 4/4 as some kind of peace is finally achieved.

Also from “Luma” the ballad “Broken Kingdom Part 2” featured a gentle solo ‘acoustic’ piano introduction, with Francis eventually joined by the sounds of Boxall’s electric bass and Murray’s cymbal shimmers. The lyricism continued through the delicate interplay of piano and bass, before the momentum gradually began to build during Francis’ subsequent piano solo.

Francis also works as a piano teacher and the new composition “Lydian Child” began as an exercise to write a piece in the Lydian mode. Francis regards the resultant piece as a “potential two and a half minute single” and it’s certainly a catchy little item with Boxall’s supple electric bass grooves and Murray’s busy drumming supporting a mix of keyboard sounds, with that of the Prophet 6 particularly prominent.

Those two and a half minutes became a lot longer as “Lydian Child” segued into “2 Bed Flat On Mars”, perhaps the most radical and futuristic track on “Luma”. This featured the sounds of sequencers and glitchy electronica, with Francis manipulating her various floor mounted FX and Boxall also deploying his pedal-board. The looped and layered sounds created a trance like effect, the spell eventually broken by Boxall’s bass solo, this supported by synth and Rhodes sounds and the patter of Murray’s hand drumming.

The show concluded with “Backseat Driver”, also sourced from the “Luma” album. Complex arpeggiated riffs and propulsive rhythms, with Murray’s drums prominent, alternated with more lyrical interludes as the trio made excellent use of contrasting dynamics. Francis again made use of acoustic and electric piano sounds and Boxall delivered a liquid electric bass solo before the trio geared up for ‘the big finish’, with GoGo Penguin coming briefly to mind.

The highly supportive Ross audience demanded an encore, this being “Shakey Jake”, a Boxall composition that featured on the “New Town” video EP. Given that this was primarily one of Trevor’s tunes it came as no surprise that this was a funky offering with a percolating bass groove, a propulsive drum beat and dirty Rhodes sounds inspired by Now vs Now and Kneebody. A great way to round off an excellent evening.

My thanks to Emily, Trevor and Jamie for speaking with me at some length after the show. I discovered that Emily has just returned from a lengthy tour with Toyah Wilcox and Robert Fripp, an enjoyable experience that saw her playing to some very large audiences. Francis and Fripp were both born in Wimborne, and although it wasn’t the deciding factor in her getting the gig it certainly helped her integration into the touring band.

For the moment Francis is concentrating on building the profile of her own trio, actively looking for gigs and with plans to release a new EP in the New Year. Despite McCaslin adding vocals to some of his recent recordings Francis has decided not to follow the same route, although she has worked as a singer in the past. “Can you imagine trying to write lyrics for this stuff”, she says of her trio’s often complex output. The trio also refuse to compromise by playing jazz standards at provincial jazz clubs, preferring, quite rightly, to concentrate on their own music. And as we saw tonight audiences can be adventurous and receptive to new music, EFT really did go down well. I’d also heard great things about the trio’s recent performance at Colchester Arts Centre from an old friend who is currently exiled in Essex.

Present in the audience tonight and very much enjoying the performance was Dave Fuller, promoter of the Music Spoken Here organisation who promote jazz / funk / fusion events at The Marr’s Bar in Worcester. Hopefully EFT will come and play there at some point in the not too distant future. I’ll certainly be looking forward to that.

Finally thanks to Dave Logan for allowing me to cover tonight’s event.

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