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Review

by Ian Mann

May 23, 2022

/ ALBUM

Francis transcends her many influences to create a sound that is very much her own, skilfully blending acoustic and electric elements to create a rich tapestry of sound.

Emily Francis Trio

“Luma”

(Self Released EFT02-CD)

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


“Luma” is the long awaited second album release from pianist / keyboard player Emily Francis and her trio.

The group’s 2015 début “The Absent” garnered a good deal of critical acclaim and the trio toured successfully in the wake of the album. 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;
https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/emily-francis-trio-the-absent

Birmingham live show review here;
https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/emily-francis-trio-symphony-hall-cafe-bar-birmingham-12-02-2016

Francis was born in Wimborne, Dorset, also the birth place of another ‘Wimborne Wonder’, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Her father is a singer and guitarist and the young Francis 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.

Francis and Boxall formed the Emily Francis Trio in 2014 with original drummer Liam Waugh. This line up features on “The Absent” and also appeared at that Birmingham show. The début was primarily acoustic and revealed a strong EST influence, but already Francis was beginning to experiment with electric keyboards, an aspect of her playing that becomes more apparent on “Luma”.

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. The band line up also changed around this time with Waugh being replaced by current drummer Jamie Murray.

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.

Francis’ fascination with electric keyboard sounds was fuelled by the final David Bowie album “Blackstar”, 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 a recent 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 Scandinavian influences in favour of a harder hitting sound. Her early days 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”.

The album was recorded in the UK but mixed and co-produced (with Francis and Boxall) by the Alabama based producer Jason Kingsland, who has worked with McCaslin, Blackstar bassist Tim Lefebvre and with rock acts such as the Kaiser Chiefs. “He is a big part of the sound” says Francis.
The Kingsland connection has also led to Murray working with Lefebvre’s band in New York.

The album commences with “Idol”, a track that has previously issued as a single. The unaccompanied keyboard introduction incorporates both acoustic and electric sounds, with Francis eventually joined by both electric bass and drums. The piece develops slowly and organically, deploying a song like structure, which hints at the leader’s past in function and session bands. Meanwhile the skilful layering of multi-keyboard sounds – piano, organ, synths – also suggests the influence of prog, with Francis having cited such latter day exponents of the genre such as Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson as significant influences. Wilson’s keyboard player, the New York born Adam Holzman, a musician who has also worked with Miles Davis, is another whose playing has made a considerable impression on Francis. Wistful and mysterious “Idol” is both accessible and intriguing in equal measure and represents a good example of Francis’ current musical approach.

Another track released as a single, “Escape From The Echo Chamber”, increases the energy levels and draws on Francis’ love for the music of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and of funk in general. Funky, distorted electric piano sounds combine with darting snatches of synth melody, allied to the meaty odd meter bass and drum grooves laid down by Boxall and Murray. Francis solos on electric piano and there’s also a brief period of reflection with the keyboards mistily swirling in a Bladerunner like soundscape.

“Le Tambour, 2.00 AM” keeps up the funk quotient with Boxall’s electric bass pulse joined by the colourful sounds of Murray’s drums and percussion, and eventually the leader’s keyboards. The skittering bass and drum grooves are again punctuated by more reflective moments, but once again this is largely a high energy piece. Francis mixes electric and acoustic sounds, but delivers her solo on acoustic piano. Indeed the whole piece was primarily performed acoustically, with Kingsland later processing the trio’s sound to create the electro-acoustic sonic landscape that is the finished product.

“Broken Kingdom Pt. 1” is introduced by an electric bass line that suggests an indie rock influence.
As the drums and synths kick in we are drawn into an intriguing musical terrain that draws on both electronic dance music and prog rock. It’s an interesting place to be.

All of the pieces on the album are credited to ‘Emily Francis Trio’ but the leader admits that the initial idea for “The Kite & The Crow”, arguably the album’s stand out track, came from Boxall, whose bass line formed the foundation for the piece. Another track to have been released as a single the piece 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. Musically the piece borrows from the legacy of prog rock, particularly through its use of complex time signatures, with bassist Boxall and drummer Murray rising to the rhythmic challenges with aplomb. Francis skilfully mixes acoustic and electric keyboard sounds, soloing on acoustic piano, but with the sound subsequently treated by Kingsland.  Following the bustling second section, which is a musical description of the fight between the two birds, the piece eventually resolves itself with a more anthemic passage in 4/4 as some kind of peace is finally reached.

The lovely “Broken Kingdom Pt. 2” is similarly episodic, building from a gentle solo acoustic piano introduction through long lyrical passages of primarily acoustic jazz. It’s a piece that helps to demonstrate the considerable range of this versatile trio and provides evidence of their roots in the jazz tradition.

As its title might suggest “2 Bed Flat on Mars” re-introduces the electric side of EFT with its spacey synth bleepings and general sci-fi atmosphere, with bass and drums eventually emerging to augment those charmingly retro synth sounds. Francis solos on synth above a skittering drum groove as the piece moves through a series of distinct phases, culminating in something of a feature for Murray. It’s a characteristic of the writing that the music often progresses through a series of twists and turns during the course of any given track – it’s a good characteristic to have.

Initially “Backseat Driver” surges along, fuelled by urgent, fidgety bass and drum grooves, with the leader moving between electric and acoustic piano sounds, plus a sprinkling of synths.  Again there’s the sense of being taken on a journey as the music speeds up and slows down, fluctuating between the electric and the acoustic. Boxall comes to the fore with a melodic, liquidly lyrical electric bass feature and Francis delivers a sparkling acoustic piano solo as the music revs up once more.

The album concludes with “A Night In”, introduced by Boxall at the bass. Although predominately mellow and melodic, with Francis doubling on piano and synth, the piece eventually builds up a head of steam as the bass and drum grooves become more urgent and the keyboards bring something of an anthemic quality to the music, ending the album on an optimistic note.

With this album Francis transcends her many influences to create a sound that is very much her own, skilfully blending acoustic and electric elements to create a rich tapestry of sound. The writing is flexible and intelligent, often with a strong pop sensibility, but there is plenty of variation in terms of mood and dynamics within the course of the individual compositions, helping to maintain the listener’s attention. It’s a sound that’s not always easy to describe, but I hope I’ve done it justice.

The use of electric keyboards may offend some jazz purists, but one senses that Francis is also chasing a whole new audience, including adventurous rock listeners. Fans of bands such as Gogo Penguin and Vels Trio will find much to enjoy in Francis’ new music. Indeed it was Vels Trio that I was initially reminded of when I first listened to this album, although it has to be said that the Francis trio have deeper jazz roots. Nevertheless this new album rivals Vels in terms of pure accessibility.

“Luma” seems to have created quite a stir and it will be interesting to see if EFT start to perform live shows to younger audiences in different as the Penguins and Vels have done, moving away from the usual jazz club circuit. I very much enjoyed Luma’s blurring of the lines between musical genres and would welcome the opportunity of seeing the band live again if the opportunity occurs – whatever the venue.

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