Coming from Sony Classical
Alexis Ffrench calls for us all to re-examine our Truth
English classical-soul composer Alexis Ffrench will be releasing his third full album this coming May. Titled “Truth,” the album integrates a myriad of genres and soundscapes to tell his story of finding purpose through darkness, encouraging those who listen to do the same.
Ffrench’s promotional material reads, “This all stemmed from Alexis’s own reaction to the brutal murder in 2020 of George Floyd. In his anxiety and distress at what he had witnessed on the news, Alexis turned to music for help, going straight to the piano to compose, as a way of processing what had just happened.”
With the pre-requisite knowledge of the work’s background, this author (of Caucasian, Western European descent) felt that this review would be incomplete without representative voices from the community that inspired Ffrench to search for his truth.
On a Zoom call at five o’clock on a Friday evening, Reggie Coleman and Desmond Kirkland graciously offered their time and efforts to participate in a discussion about Truth’s relation to their own experiences with music and with life.
Though both are recent alumni of the Middle Tennessee State University School of Music, their paths never crossed. Reggie graduated in 2018 with his bachelor’s in music education, where he established his reputation as a wonderful addition to the young music educators in Middle Tennessee. His continuous hard work has paid off, as he is now the head band director at the growing program of Rocky Fork Middle School in Smyrna, Tennessee.
The fall semester after Reggie’s commencement, Desmond entered as a first-year master’s student in jazz studies with a specialization in vocal performance. A little over a year after graduating in May 2020, in the wake of the global pandemic, Desmond moved to New York City to be closer to the reawakening musical theater community, where he now lives in upper Manhattan, managing his own vocal studio.
After introductions are made, Reggie and Desmond jump in to discuss their initial impressions of the album, both equipped with pages of notes and talking points.
“I just really appreciated how he turned something that was dark and very upsetting for everybody—or should have been upsetting for everybody—into something so ridiculously beautiful and thought-provoking,” Reggie kicks off the conversation.
Desmond adds to his point, saying, “I think, unfortunately, you cannot separate the Black experience in America while not also addressing the trauma of the experience. And I found it really refreshing to hear hope in every one of his songs… it wasn’t like one of those ‘hope in overshadowing’ or ‘hope to hide the negativity that clearly happened.’ It was hope that was informed by trauma.”
Continuing his opening thoughts, Reggie pointed out that Ffrench also used his gifts to do what he could to make the world a better place, prompting others through his music to do the same. “And then just musically… the tonality throughout—the way he plays with the tone clusters, chord clusters, things like that, and every melody…. Every single piece sounds like a story, from beginning to end. With like rising action, climax, falling, all that, the whole plot graph.”
In conclusion to the first question of initial impressions, Desmond states, “Looking at everyone protest and them not all looking like me was really refreshing. It was really refreshing to see that, okay, like there are people of European descent that are on the frontlines, but also not being performative. And I feel some of that unity in the orchestration of this as well. Like it’s not just him playing piano by himself… clearly, he’s also calling [to] everybody, and they’re playing with him.”
Truth provides a lush and ever-changing sonic environment. Timbres range from the simplicity of a “Clair de Lune”-type piano melody coupled with the rickety mechanics of the same piano Harry Styles used on Fine Line, to genre-bending orchestrations that incorporate electric guitar, to a vocal line that works in tandem to the piano line on top of a string accompaniment. Beautiful melodies are performed by unconventional instrumentation, and tone colors that typically surface front and center in standard orchestrations end up partnering with and taking a backseat to Ffrench’s soulful piano playing.
Reminiscent of transcendental themes reinforced throughout the Romantic era of music, Ffrench uses references to nature almost exclusively. He speaks about the Vaughn Williams-esque seascape tonal elements on “Canyons” in his YouTube series “Talking Truth with Alexis Ffrench.” Additionally, utilizing gorgeous topographical locations in his music videos for “Canyons” and “Guiding Light,” each frame and each chord resonate within the idea of the Sublime. This focus on finding our place within something bigger than our individual selves only serves to reinforce the larger, existential questions he is asking his audience.
Alexis Ffrench doesn’t shy away from extremes, citing Beethoven’s use of dynamics as an influence on his compositional techniques. Even some of the way he juxtaposes piano to the rest of his orchestration is reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. One specific moment that comes to mind is in “Papillon,” where the meandering piano line evokes the image of a butterfly fluttering through the woods, the listener able to observe the natural elements around them.
Taking a moment to discuss each of our standout tracks on the album, Reggie begins with the opening piece, “Canyons.”
“It just sounds way different than everything else. Not that his tone changes, or that the message changes, but for some reason, that one just spoke to me the most. And the melody… is one of the most unique and beautiful melodies I’ve heard in a while…. And I loved how in the second phrase… it’s all the same until it gives you like a color note, if you will. And that note changes… that note shapes that entire phrase, and I can just picture someone sitting at a piano, and it sounds almost improvisatory…. It’s so natural and so simple, and I just love it.”
Desmond pivots to point out the way you can hear the inner workings of the piano in the opening melody of “Canyons”, and how that feels relatable to every music student who listens to it. “I loved hearing it because there was this sense of beauty out of chaos or beauty out of the unknown—the inner workings of things that we don’t often see, or the inner workings of things that are oftentimes hidden and pushed away.”
It felt like a lifting from the trauma…it felt like worship at home
He then moves on to say that “Guiding Light” was his favorite track. “It felt like a lifting from the trauma. It sounded like encouragement—I wrote down it felt like worship at home…. It felt very personal, though somehow still brought me in and let me witness it, and I loved that.”
While perhaps the obvious choice due to the addition of a vocal line, the second track “One Look” featuring Leona Lewis stood out most to this author because of how Ffrench incorporates the vocalization into the texture of the piece.
Reggie expands on this point: “I said that it’s almost as if the piano acts as a partner, and not so much accompaniment to me. Whereas the strings and other things in the background, that to me is what sounds like the accompaniment. And I think the time when she’s vocalizing, I feel she starts to become the accompaniment for the piano in a way…. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that there’s a point of view from the piano, and there’s a point of view from the voice, and they were both longing.”
At this point in the conversation about the grief embedded in that longing for one more look, I ask if it seems intentional to have a Black female vocalist singing “One Look,” in light of poignant imagery coming from the reporting of the protests that centers the mothers and wives who are left behind in the wake of this brutality.
Desmond responds, “Unfortunately too often, we have mothers saying goodbye to their sons, and they will never see them again… hoping for one more look… even if it wasn’t an intentional thing for having a Black female vocalist do that line. It does match the Black female experience of having to say goodbye to someone that should still be here—and if not for the brutality and the racism, would still be here.”
Though geared toward the events that directly affected a single community, Truth feels like an album for everyone. Reggie addresses this rallying call while talking about musical elements that harken to other genres. “It had something for everybody…. I appreciate that because it’s going to take everybody to make any of this better, to make any of this happen…. This album’s for everybody. It’s not for Black people, it’s not for White people, it’s not for Classical musicians, it’s not for Funk—it’s for everyone. Everyone can find something they appreciate, and I think that’s what we need.”
Many, many thanks to both Reggie and Desmond for engaging in this important discourse with me.
You can watch the music videos for “Canyons” and “Guiding Light” and listen to Alexis Ffrench discuss his upcoming release Truth on his YouTube channel.