NYJO Presents… Karen Shiraishi

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Before her upcoming NYJO Presents livestream at Ronnie Scott's, Karen takes some time to talk music making, the struggles that came with lockdown and her time at Berklee College of Music. We also see the return of Desert Island Discs!

This weekend represents the first back-to-back NYJO Presents… Sunday livestream from Ronnie Scott’s. Following on from the amazing Roella Oloro, we have another super-talented pianist and composer to look forward to from 8pm Sunday (18 APR).

Karen’s performance will feature music by some of her favourite composers, as well as her original compositions which will be brought to life by her supporting cast, consisting of Jas Kayser on drums, Ezekiel Ajie on bass, James Wade-Sired on trombone and a special guest appearance from the amazing Tony Kofi!

NYJO Presents… Karen Shiraishi
Read our full interview with Karen below!

Hi Karen! First of all, how have you been?

I have a lot of mixed emotions right now. I’m currently taking some time off from Berklee [College of Music], as online learning meant that I no longer had access to the facilities and face-to-face learning I originally had. Not being able to play with other musicians every day and night like I was when I was in Boston has been difficult emotionally. Lockdown has made me realise just how much I need the piano to make me feel centred during times of chaos – I’m really lucky to have music as an outlet.

I’ve been back in London since September 2020, and in the brief periods where lockdown was lifted, I’ve been able to reconnect with my mentors Julian Joseph, Trevor Watkis, Tony Kofi and Byron Wallen – so even though I’m taking some time off my degree, luckily my learning hasn’t stopped. I’ve also been able to play with my peers at the World Heart Beat Music Academy, and reuniting with my musical family here in London has been a blessing.

NYJO Presents… Karen Shiraishi
You donate towards Karen’s Berklee fees here.

You will be performing at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the new NYJO Presents series on the 18th of April. How do you feel about performing live again?

I’m very excited to be playing live! It’s given me something to look forward to again. I feel honoured to be playing at Ronnie Scott’s, where so many jazz greats have performed over the years, and I’m very grateful for NYJO Presents for this opportunity.

I just want people to hear my music and feel good. Music is an incredible medium for healing and uniting people, and it has been such a blessing for me especially over the last year. I just hope to uplift people and share the joy.

What can audiences expect from your performance?

I’ll be joined by my wonderful trio with Jas Kayser on drums and Ezekiel Ajie on bass. I’ll also be joined by James Wade-Sired on trombone. Everyone in my band was brought up musically through the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy and World Heart Beat Music Academy, so we come from the same musical family. Most of us have been playing with each other since I was 14. Jas also went to Berklee so I’d see her in Boston as well. We’ll be playing a lot of my original compositions, as well as some of my favourite standards and arrangements. Composition is one of my passions, and so I’m excited to perform my tunes at a venue as prestigious as Ronnie Scott’s!

Karen Shiraishi Trio performs “Now I Know” (original composition).

What would you say is the most important themes – whether musically or socially – you try to convey with your music?

I just want people to hear my music and feel good. Music is an incredible medium for healing and uniting people, and it has been such a blessing for me especially over the last year. I just hope to uplift people and share the joy.

You were classically trained but fell in love with jazz as a teen. What first attracted you to jazz and where has it taken you since?

I began learning classical piano at age 3 and always enjoyed it. Growing up I’d heard artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson playing around the house, so I’ve always been attracted to black American music genres. I loved the music so much that I intuitively would learn the songs I heard by ear.

My first encounter with jazz was when I heard the Oscar Peterson Trio when I was 14. It was a life-changing moment for me to hear them swing so hard. Straight away I started looking for jazz pianists to study with, and I had my first lesson with Trevor Watkis at World Heart Beat (WHB). Shortly after, I began attending the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy (JJJA), where we studied Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, among many others. At JJJA and WHB I was never given a single lead sheet; there’s always been a strong emphasis on learning the music the authentic, American way, which I really appreciate. It sharpened my ears and forced me to use my initiative.

In 2017 I was offered a scholarship from Berklee. It was a dream come true for me to study this uniquely American art-form in the states. There I’ve been taking private lessons with JoAnne Brackeen. She’s one of the best piano players alive and it’s an absolute honour to study with her. During my time at Berklee so far, I’ve been fortunate to perform across and outside the US. I performed at Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland for five nights in a row as part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Jazz and Gender Justice Institute. I also did a week-long residency in Russia with Dean Ron Savage – we performed at the Novosibirsk Jazz Festival, as well as doing clinics at a high school there.

Terri Lyne Carrington, Angela Davis, and Gina Dent discuss the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

I was also on the road with Ralph Peterson’s GenNext Big Band; we played DC Jazz Festival and Dizzy’s Jazz Club (NYC). Sharing the stage with Ralph have been some of my most profound musical experiences. He very recently passed away, and my heart is heavy knowing he is no longer here, but I feel so blessed to have studied with him. He was incredibly generous and treated all of his students like family. I know that he’ll always be with us, looking out for us.

Jazz music, and in particular Art Blakey, has had a profound impact on my life. Not only have I been lucky enough to study with Ralph and JoAnne, my close mentor Julian Joseph studied with Donald Brown, another Messenger. Some of my closest friends and their mentors also came up through the instruction of Messengers. When I first took an interest in jazz, I had no idea just how deep this music goes. It permeates every part of my life, even the aspects that seemingly have nothing to do with music. I know it can sound clichéd, but it certainly feels as though it was fate that I discovered this music. Too much has lined up for this to all be a coincidence – it makes a lot of sense.

Tell us about Grammy Camp in LA – what brought you there and what did you learn from the experience?

Gucci Timepieces & Jewellery, in partnership with World Heart Beat, kindly sponsored me to attend to Grammy Camp LA in 2015. It was my first time in the US and I was 16 at the time. There we learned about the care and attention to detail that goes into writing and producing pop songs, and about the business side of the music industry. I got to meet a lot of my peers from across the US, and I’m still in touch with some of the people I met there. Being put in a group of totally new people and collaborating in song-writing was a rewarding experience. To finish off the programme we performed at the El Rey Theatre, and Kamasi Washington was in the audience, which was really cool. I always knew since I was young that music was what I wanted to do, but going to Grammy Camp really affirmed that desire for me. It gave me a taste of what it would be like to work in music.

You have performed to audiences all around the world, both in person and ‘digitally’. Do you think livestream gigs like the NYJO Presents series are a good way of reaching people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, or does it feel less personal performing to an empty room?

I played an online livestream concert with my band at World Heart Beat in partnership with Yokohama Calling in December 2020. The concert was for a Japanese audience, and as a Japanese person who grew up in London, it was really cool to reach people who share my ethnic background. There’s nothing like playing to a room full of people, but I really enjoyed performing for the livestream nonetheless. Online concerts and remote recordings have enabled musicians to reach people from all over the world, which is something that hadn’t been explored to this extent prior to Covid. I’m just grateful to be able to play with people at all!

Desert Island Discs, you know the drill: eight tracks, a book, and a luxury. What would you take to a desert island?

I’d take the book “Taming the Tiger” by Akong Tulku Rinpoche. It always helps me centre myself. I’d like to think I’d be happy living off the land on an island. I’d definitely want to have a piano there though.

Karen’s 8 tracks are:

Listen to Karen’s playlist here!

Well, there we have it. Another really interesting Q&A with one to watch for the future! You can register your interest for Karen’s livestream via the button below. The performance will stream live from 8pm this Sunday on the NYJO Facebook page and the Ronnie Scott’s YouTube channel.

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