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Karen Francis: Better Days

Think back to the early Capitol days of Nancy Wilson. Now imagine what would’ve happened if the purposefully buttoned-up Nancy had loosened her stays just a little. Result? Stanley Cowell protege Karen Francis. That Francis sounds like the young Wilson is undeniable. Close your eyes, and you’ll find it almost impossible to tell them apart. But there’s a funky ebullience that underscores Francis’ silky warmth throughout the stunningly good Better Days (Virgo Rising). Focusing primarily on the more fulfilling aspects of love, Francis takes various combinations of sterling sidemen (Antonio Parker and Christian McBride among them) on a spirited spin through standards old and new. Carmen Lundy’s title track, a dusky paean to perseverance, billows with unguarded optimism. Harburg and Lane’s “Old Devil Moon” shines like a newly minted dime. Hoagy Carmichael’s often overwrought “The Nearness of You” is (thanks in large part to a sublime McBride solo) a study in spare elegance. In addition, Francis kisses the usually languid “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” with a sparkling sanguinity and gives an affectionate hug to an extraordinary child on the self-penned “Cameron’s Song.” Most impressive, though, is “Four Voices Left Unheard,” a variation of Nina Simone’s seminal “Four Women” that, examining the what-might-have-been of four little girls killed in an Alabama bombing in the early ’60s, proves there’s a whole lot more to Francis than just pretty love songs.

Originally Published