Karla Harris’ vocal style surges from vulnerable to powerful and back again, integrating a warmth and vigor into the music and bringing an instinctive ability to share both the story and musical substance of the songs she sings. Known for nuanced jazz vocals that bring a sophisticated ease and dynamic delivery, Karla has made a career within the art form she loves for more than three decades, performing for audiences from Portland to Provence. Her repertoire spans genres and styles, blending boundaries with subtlety, remaining respectful to the roots of each song. Her art lies not only in expansive vocals but also in a knack for tapping into the emotion of a song and delivering it fully. Writes AXS.com, “She lends her pulse to be a part of the heartbeat of the entire process, vocals and instrumentals, and the strange meandering force that lies between.” Critical Jazz reviews, “Rich, full-bodied and with a slightly buttery finish, Karla Harris has mad skills — a vocal artist with impeccable phrasing and the innate gift to have the band play with and not around her.”
Karla’s love for singing started first with a love for words and the power of their expression, written or sung. As a little girl growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, she loved reading after school in the window seat. On Saturday mornings, she often woke up early to write little stories, and (after chores) spent Saturday afternoons transcribing lyrics from some favorites in her parents’ eclectic album collection (Nancy Wilson, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, the Fifth Dimension…), lifting the turntable needle up and down over and over again to capture every word. She sang those songs at shows she and her cousin put on for relatives at family gatherings, but her first taste of performing for a “real” audience came at age 10, when she sang a solo (“The Way We Were”) during a grade-school choral concert. She continued on with talent shows, choirs, performing troupes, garage bands and piano lessons throughout her school years.
While in college during the ’80s working toward her bachelor’s degree in speech communications, Karla was asked to sing lead with the St. Louis Jazz Quartet, a Young Audiences group that performed a program introducing jazz in schools throughout the area. The group featured well-loved Midwest jazz vocalist Jeanne Trevor, an early mentor for Karla. Soon after joining the jazz quartet, Karla also became lead vocalist with a popular dance band, living a dual musical experience that eventually worked hand-in-hand as she merged skills from each. She became known as a diverse and in-demand singer, working regularly with St. Louis’ top groups.
In the early 2000s, Karla, drawn increasingly by the rich composition of the standards and the creativity of improv, followed a long-held desire to dive more deeply into jazz. She was fortunate during this time to begin singing in a jazz quartet led by internationally acclaimed bassist Tom Kennedy, whose credits include such greats as Rosemary Clooney, Freddie Hubbard, Mike Stern, Lee Ritenour, Ben Vereen, Dave Weckl, and more. An invaluable experience, it helped pave the way when a 2005 move to the Pacific Northwest landed her in Portland, Oregon’s, celebrated jazz scene. There, Karla began working with players such as Randy Porter (Diane Schuur, Gino Vanelli, Madelaine Eastman), Bobby Torres (Joe Cocker, Etta James), Bo Ayars (Liberace, Barbra Streisand), Steve Christofferson (Nancy King), Todd Strait (Kevin Mahogany, Eldar, Karrin Allyson), Mark Simon (Leroy Vinnegar), Mike Horsfall (Chuck Redd, Pink Martini, Rebecca Kilgore), and more, further developing her skills and repertoire in that nurturing environment.
In Portland, Karla became a regularly featured artist at premier jazz rooms. She went on to perform at events such as the Newport Jazz Festival, Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, Bite of Oregon Festival, Portland Jazz Festival, Nantucket Arts Festival, and the Atlanta Jazz Party. Of her performances, WSIE Radio says Karla is “a powerful singer at ease in any setting, a singer for all seasons who makes any song memorable.” Clubscene writes, “She engages us and makes us happy to be spending the evening with her.” Her versatility is compelling. As one Atlanta fan put it, “Karla has more dimensions than the string theory.”
Karla released her first CD, “Twice As Nice,” a collaboration with Tom Kennedy, in 2007. Featuring Kennedy’s arrangements, the recording is a collection of standards, including two songs each from favorite songwriters Jimmy McHugh, Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel, Richard Rodgers and Burt Bacharach. Of the project, Jazz Scene Magazine writes, “Always respectful of her American Songbook choices, Harris has superb intonation and a contemporary, appealing approach to the songs.”
In 2012, Karla relocated to Atlanta, where she works with many of the city’s first-call jazz artists. She has opened for Grammy-nominated jazz singer Kate McGarry, performed as featured vocalist with some of the city’s finest band leaders, and sung at a TED Talk (an experience she considers one of her Top 10 Days). Touring other areas, she’s performed in the Southeast, Midwest and more, including several return performances to Portland for the Portland Jazz Festival, and a wine and jazz cruise through southern France on the River Rhone.
Through her work in Atlanta, Karla was introduced to L.A.-based pianist, composer, arranger and educator Ted Howe, producer of her 2015 recording, “Karla Harris Sings the Dave and Iola Brubeck Songbook.” The CD is the first-ever studio recording dedicated exclusively to vocal versions of 11 Dave Brubeck compositions with lyrics written by his wife of 70 years, Iola Brubeck. It features Karla with Ted Howe, bassist Tom Kennedy, drummer Dave Weckl and saxophonist Bob Sheppard.
The project, released on Summit Records, debuted with a performance at the Sarasota Jazz Festival and has received multiple reviews praising its conceptual approach and execution: “She makes these seldom-heard lyrics come alive.” — Jazz History Online. “A work of sheer elegance and distinction.” — Jazz da Gama. “The Brubecks would have been pleased.” — Jazziz Magazine. Karla’s versions of Brubeck classics such as “Take Five,” “Far More Blue,” and “Trav’lin Blues” are heard on jazz radio across the U.S. and internationally.
In 2017, Karla returned to the studio to work on a collection of original music she began developing a few years ago. Drawing from her varied influences including swing, Latin, blues, contemporary jazz and world music, Karla’s music is a diverse merging, a journey that combines love of lyric, melody and mood.