Primary Instrument: Vocalist
In the summer of 1994 in Washington D.C., jazz vocalist Karen Francis was discovered by world renown jazz master (pianist, composer, record label executive, producer, and professor) Stanley Cowell.
Cowell, one of jazz music's most talented architects who, with Charles Tolliver in 1971, established and launched Strata-East Records, was hosting a party in his home one evening when he had occasion to be introduced to Francis by one of his students - William Knowles. A significant turn of events during the course of the evening revealed that Karen was a singer and Cowell invited her to sit in with him at an impromptu jam session.
They played two duets together - Round Midnight and Lush Life. Once Cowell heard her sing, he knew that this was a voice that would go places and decided to record her. After becoming acquainted with her, Cowell discovered that Francis was relatively new to singing, but not so new to music, as she had played several instruments while in high school in Augusta, Georgia and at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
A few short weeks after his discovery of this extraordinary talent, Cowell gave Francis her first professional recording opportunity and introduction to the international jazz community through an invitation to be a featured artist on a coming project “Mandara Blossoms”. Overwhelmed, nervous, and honored, Karen accepted and in October of ’94, her first efforts as a featured recording artist were committed to history on record in the SteepleChase Records catalogue. This recording featured Cowell on piano, tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce, and drummer Ralph Peterson.
Notably, SteepleChase alumni include monumental luminaries such as Ben Webster, Bud Powell, Shirley Horn, Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie - to name a few. On this roster an awed Francis founds herself in stellar company. Four weeks after the project with Cowell had been recorded, SteepleChase called on Francis to record as a leader. This was an industry nod in light of the fact that SteepleChase's roster of vocalists numbers a very select few.
She accepted, and several months later found her back on West 45th Street in the Big Apple recording her first project as a leader, entitled Where Is Love? This project underscores Francis' lyrical warmth and sincerity and was created in the company of pianist George, bassist James King, and drummer Aaron Walker. Francis, together with this sterling roster of talented musicians and friends, creates an offering that is warm, reflective, and moving.
As the months flew by following the release of the first recordings, Francis continued to further develop and refine her skill - studying vocal technique with jazz master Grady Tate, sitting in with visiting luminaries such as Harold Mabern, and playing major jazz and concert venues in the Washington DC and Pennsylvania areas (The Kennedy Center, Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns, 219, Twins, Catholic University, University of Maryland, One Step Down, Blue Velvet Lounge, and Washington Spirit Cruise line). She also began to stretch and grow in style and presentation.
Eventually she met and worked with pianist/composer Larry Willis - perhaps best known through his tenures as Musical Director and composer for the infamous bands 'Blood, Sweat, and Tears' and 'Fort Apache, the Bronx.' Willis assisted Francis in building on her already expansive repertoire and helped to further light her path.
This liaison preceded and greatly supported her second recording with SteepleChase, Little Sunflower, which features arrangements by Willis. The arrangement of the title tune, Freddie Hubbard's Little Sunflower - was inspired and requested by Francis who heard and felt the song in an unusual meter and came seeking Willis for assistance. This CD features several originals offered by guitarist/bassist Gerry Eastman and features George Cables on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Aaron Walker on drums, Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, and Gerry Eastman on guitar.
Soon after, a mentor-mentee relationship with jazz drummer Nasar Abadey sprouted and began to grow. The influence of this relationship forged the beginnings of a new, more powerful vocal style for Francis - as Abadey began to share the power of his life experiences in the music and its history with her. Later they would meet to practice and perform together. The urgency, power, and insistence of Abadey's drum accompaniment on many performances planted seeds for a style that shows up as a reckoning force.
Through this period seeds for a new recording were planted and nurtured by Francis and Abadey and the birthing process for project number three �� “Better Days” - began. This project features jazz's most prolific bassist - Christian McBride - on bass, and a band composed almost entirely of recording band leaders in their own right Nasar Abadey on drums, Allyn Johnson - piano, and Antonio Parker - saxophones. Bassists James King and Michael Hawkins also bring incredible musicality to this effort. Sam Turner and Barnette Williams round out the ensemble on percussion. Here Karen sprouts and spreads her wings as lyricist, co-composer, and producer. The recording is a profound and creative introduction to Francis in the new millennium and is - to Karen - her most exciting work yet.
During the development of this project, Francis moved to New York City to continue to stretch and to expose herself to more music and musicians. When McBride was contacted for comments regarding Karen, he offered this… Karen Francis and her cohorts are some of the greatest musicians I've ever worked with. Karen is not only a fine vocalist, but she is a fantastic musician. Not all vocalists are musicians, you know?
Following the yellow brick road, Karen developed a mentor-mentee relationship with Norman Simmons, best known for his tenure as Musical Director and pianist for great singers who include but are not limited to Carmen McRae and Joe Williams. Shortly after arriving, Karen secured a regular gig at The Up Over Jazz Café in Brooklyn, NY. Every Thursday night for more than one year she continued to groom her approach to the craft, eventually performing in several of New York’s hippest jazz venues: Birdland, The Blue Note, Sweet Rhythm, Minton’s PlayHouse, Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Cleopatra's Needle, Pumpkins, Red Eye Grill, The Williamsburg Music Center, and other notable venues.
Karen is currently working on a new project that features Norman Simmons & Marc Cary-p, Curtis Lundy-b, Greg Hutchinson-d, Mark Gross and Justin Robinson-alto sax. This effort is an exciting and fruitful collaboration which promises to be delicious.
Karen Francis is a voice that simply must be experienced! She possesses the rare gift of a pure, warm, and full sound; sincere interpretation and delivery; and soulful swing - backed by a powerful, flexible instrument with which she demonstrates tremendous control and taste. Her music is informed by warmth surely inspired by her Southern upbringing and her naturally bubbling personality.
Francis has an unusual sensitivity, reminiscent of the great singers, and she is always interested in the story that the music tells - which she is more than equipped with the power to interpret. This she does with a style and grace that is rarely matched in today's vanguard of jazz singing.
Her work has been reviewed in major European and American periodicals and her music played on jazz radio abroad and in the U.S. The world can certainly look forward to experiencing this fresh talent breaking through as she receives the spiritual baton from the greats and steps up to create anew and carry forward the legacy of the jazz singer.
The relaxed, conversational intimacy of her style is delivered with innate confidence. She confronts the challenge of slow ballad standards with tact and rare taste. Francis hints at limitless potential; the intimate timbre of her voice is matched by a sophisticated, low-key approach that indicates she understands the drama of restraint.- Cadence Magazine ...many of these singers are well worth seeking out, either in person, on record: Tony Bennett, Carmen Bradford, Jay Clayton, Ethel Ennis, Karen Francis, Aretha Franklin, Astrud Gilberto... - Singing Jazz: The Singers and their Styles Often compared to Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington, her tonal quality is more reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan - with the relaxed quality of a diva. - Pure Jazz Magazine