Karen Francis

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One of the many straight-ahead jazz vocalists who emerged in the '90s, Karen Francis got a lucky break when she met veteran hard bop/post-bop pianist Stanley Cowell during the summer of 1994. The two…
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One of the many straight-ahead jazz vocalists who emerged in the '90s, Karen Francis got a lucky break when she met veteran hard bop/post-bop pianist Stanley Cowell during the summer of 1994. The two of them met at a party in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Springs, MD, where they were introduced by one of Cowell's students. After hearing Francis sing, Cowell (who was 53 at the time) felt that she had a great deal of potential -- and he was surprised to learn that she had only been singing jazz for two years. Francis had been studying jazz singing since 1992, although she had been playing several instruments since high school. Cowell had enough faith in Francis to feature her extensively on his 1995 release Mandara Blossoms, which came out on the independent SteeleChase Records (a well-known Danish jazz label that is based in Copenhagen, and was named after a famous Charlie Parker standard). In fact, the acoustic pianist featured Francis on six of his own compositions, as well as on the classic Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn standard "Daydream." And Mandara Blossoms wasn't the end of Francis' relationship with SteeleChase, which released her first album as a leader, Where Is Love?, in 1996, and her sophomore disc, Little Sunflower, in 1998. The latter includes some arrangements by pianist Larry Willis, who Francis studied with extensively in the late '90s. Francis' influences have included, among others, Sarah Vaughan, Dianne Reeves, Carmen Lundy, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday -- and even though she is jazz-oriented, Francis doesn't consider herself a jazz snob. In fact, she has cited Oleta Adams and Barbra Streisand as two of her favorite singers; Francis has also expressed admiration for R&B singers Chaka Khan and Jill Scott. Although Francis now lives in Newark, NJ, just outside of New York City, she actually grew up in the Deep South; the singer went to high school in Augusta, GA (home of Soul Godfather James Brown) before attending Tuskegee University in Alabama. But she ended up moving to the Northeastern part of the United States and spent most of the '90s in that region. In 2003, Francis' third album, Better Days (which employs the ubiquitous Christian McBride on acoustic bass) was released independently on Virgo Rising Records.