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Neal Francis Gleefully Mired In 70s Style Funk

Neal Francis playing keyboard on his new single "These Are The Days"
Neal Francis
Neal Francis playing keyboard on his new single "These Are The Days"

Chicago keyboard player Neal Francis said he was knocked out by rootsy New Orleans and Chicago music at a very young age.

“I just really love the rhythm,” said Francis via Skype from the studio of Treehouse Records in Chicago, ahead of his Friday performance at Bloomington’s Jazz UpFront. “You know … anything I heard off the television … I was just trying to mimic on the piano at the time.”

He was four when he began playing.

“Then someone noticed I was gravitating toward blues and they suggested (listening to) Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins,” said Francis of the two pianists who played with Muddy Waters between 1952 and 1980, with Perkins handling the last 11.

That fascination went into overdrive when he fell into the teaching orbit of Erwin Helfer, another legendary Chicago pianist known for his stride and boogie-woogie styles. He first engaged the Chicago side as a touring musician when he hit the road with Mud Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters. Must have been some great conversations.

“Absolutely, he’s a wealth of history himself. The guys he had in his band included a guy who had played with Muddy. Omar Coleman was another guy on the Chicago blues scene. They all taught me a lot about other guys to get into. I got way deeper into the music at that point because we were doing the Muddy Waters catalogue mostly. It got me deeper into that Otis Spann and Pinetop stuff,” said Francis.

Crazy how life can come full circle. At one point he was also playing with drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, another alum of Waters’ band.

“And the first show I ever saw at age 12 was Pinetop Perkins at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago,” said Francis.

Francis took that experience and his love of New Orleans, including Dr. John and Allen Toussaint to The Heard when he joined in 2012. The funky instrumental band is part of a resurgence of young bands featuring instrumental music based in jazz, but often with added textures including funk, blues, rock and soul.

“I never went to college, but Mike (Starr) and Taras (Horalewskyj) from the band fell in love with the music of the Meters early on. Independently I was a big fan of the Meters, so we bonded over that instrumental funk from the late 60’s an early 70’s. Then certainly listening to the bands that came before us, like the New Mastersounds gave us the idea we could do this. I think it’s just a love of that sound … that raw combination of jazz and rock elements that became those early funk recordings that everyone is trying to mimic” said Francis of the now defunct band.

Francis was eventually booted out of the group for issues not uncommon among touring musicians. He’s open about those addictions, and how he landed rock bottom and eventually found his way out. He said he’s learned lessons, and as he readies to release the first album under his own name, he said music is now his drug of choice.

“These are the Days” is the debut single, and only song currently available from the album. The Dr. John influence is loud and clear on the mid-tempo New Orleans R&B track featuring horns and Francis’ burning organ. It was recorded in Killion Sound in Los Angeles, a room he said he learned to trust his recording instincts.

“Just trusting the song and where it needed to be … knowing when to put my foot down and knowing when to be open to input from (producer) Sergio (Rios)” said Francis. “Sergio is fantastic. His suggestions were always really useful. I guess what I mean by trusting my instincts is trusting the songs. They were already written going into the studio, but I was still open to production suggestions by Sergio.”

Legendary recording engineer/producer Steve Albini is in town the same day Francis plays Jazz UpFront. In a GLT conversation just days prior, Albini outlined his reasons for why he didn’t think “producer” was the correct way to refer to his role in the studio. Albini believes it his job to technically bring to life the musical vision the artist brings to the studio. Francis said that style is similar to how he approached this recording.

“I played all the instruments on the demo, and those have their own vibe. Then bringing it to Sergio’s studio, I knew what type of sound he was able to achieve and that’s why I selected him a partner to work with. I knew it was going to sound like a 1973 vibe.” said Francis.

“By the way, it’s funny, it’s funny you should mention Steve Albini. The worst job I ever worked in my life was right across the street from (Albini’s) Electrical Audio, and I used to look through the fence and I’d be like ‘damn, I need to be across the street right now’” he laughed.

Francis is feeling much better about himself today. The new album with that 1973 vibe conjures up a time when American musicians were fusing rock, funk, soul, jazz, blues and even folk into their sound and venues like the Fillmore West in San Francisco would book Jefferson Airplane, Muddy Waters, and Charles Mingus on the same bill.

“That’s the type of party I want to create,” said Francis.

Neal Francis plays Jazz UpFront in downtown Bloomington tomorrow night. Sara Quah will open the show. Music starts at 7 p.m.

The entire GLT interview with Neal Francis.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.