Doing it their way

You might be at a jazz festival, a concert in San Antonio, an upscale store opening in Dallas or a private party. The entertainment may be billed as The Band Kara, Trio Kara or Duo Kara but the sound will be original with the partnership of renown jazz pianist Mark Little and former rock vocalist Kara Stevens.

Mark Little began his professional piano career in Amarillo, Texas at the age of six in 1957. He moved to Austin, Texas at the age of 19 where he played piano with numerous groups including Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willis Allen Ramsey and Jerry Jeff Walker. He received a scholarship from Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA where he studied under Bill Evans the iconic jazz pianist. In 1980 Mark moved to California and began playing piano for jazz singer Cleo Laine and composer John Dankworth as they performed in Los Angeles, New York City and London. His career was well on the way when Kara Stevens was born in San Antonio, TX.

Mark continued touring the United States and Europe as he worked with many great jazz artists and by 2003 had recorded and released four CDs when Kara celebrated her 16th birthday. In 2004 Mark moved to San Antonio and entered the local jazz scene playing with numerous groups and jazz singers. During this time period, Kara attended the University of Texas San Antonio as she studied the fine arts including sculpture under Ken Little. She then began performing as a rock vocalist in various small venues in San Antonio and the South Texas area.

In 2015 Kara began teaching herself to play piano as she embarked on composing. Soon she realized she needed a piano teacher and reached out to her former professor Ken Little for advice. Ken told her to call his brother Mark. Kara said she knew Mark was a world renown pianist and could not believe he would be her teacher. But he did accept her as a student which led to a 64 year old jazz pianist and a 29 year old rock vocalist becoming a composing and performing team.

Kara said as she was growing up, she was always singing around the house as she listened to Karen Carpenter, Bette Midler, Cher and Broadway musicals. After Mark “picked me up from the rock world”, she says she has become basically a jazz, soul and blues vocalist.

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The teacher student relationship changed when Mark asked Kara to become a singer songwriter partner and they began working together every day.

Coming from rock music which is very controlled, Kara said Mark introduced her to the improvisation and spontaneity of jazz. She explained that the solo parts and endings of a jazz number are not rehearsed. She has learned the importance of “reading your audience” and allowing her voice to do what it wants to do in the moment.

Mark said Kara reminded him of what it is to be dedicated to one purpose – having our own band. “I started out that way then, the way of everyone else, then became a ‘hired gun’ for everybody else.  I got lost in that.” Jokingly he added, “We found each other, and she tied me to a chair and beat me severely and it’s all been uphill since then.”

Mark admires Kara’s work ethic and lack of ego. He explained his definition of EGO is Edge God Out and if someone has ego, everything starts to go downhill. When someone thinks they have reached the highest point in their career, they cannot go any further.

As Mark and Kara formed this musical partnership, being from different generations occasionally brings humor into communication. To Mark, proposing Kara “trip the light fantastic” was a perfect phrase to suggest she dance nimbly and lightly to the musical accompaniment. Kara’s response was a quizzical facial expression.

Describing the music of this duo is not an easy task. Whether you are listening to one of 500 cover songs or over 150 original lyrics and scores, none of them fit neatly into a single genre. This clip is from one of their originals Slip and Slides during The Band Kara Valentines Concert at the Tobin Center in San Antonio, TX.

Kara has called it Razz, a combination of classic rock and jazz. Others have called it a New Jazz. But whether you are listening to Duo Kara, Trio Kara or Band Kara, you are hearing an original sound and the audience can determine what it is.