In the ever-changing world of music, jazz holds a notable place as a genre that reinvents itself while respecting its heritage. In this landscape of creativity, Karen Shiraishi stands out, embodying the spirit of contemporary jazz.
Today’s music industry is a tapestry of diverse genres, each contributing to the cultural and artistic narrative of our times. Jazz, with its deep roots and expansive reach, remains a vital part of this narrative. It’s a genre that respects its history and embraces the future, serving as a platform for experimentation. Musicians like Karen Shiraishi play an important role in shaping jazz, blending tradition with contemporary sensibilities.
Karen Shiraishi’s journey in jazz is remarkable. Born into a music-rich environment, her classical training laid the foundation for her career in jazz. Her transition from classical to jazz was sparked by a love for the genre, ignited at 14 upon hearing the Oscar Peterson trio. She studied jazz at the World Heart Beat Music Academy and the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy, mentored by Julian Joseph OBE and Tony Kofi.
Shiraishi’s academic achievements led her to Berklee College of Music on a full-tuition scholarship, where she refined her craft under jazz professionals like NEA Jazz Masters JoAnne Brackeen and Terri Lyne Carrington and the late great Ralph Peterson Jr. Her time at Berklee included recognition, such as the Countess of Munster Musical Trust Award for Jazz in 2021.
Karen has performed on stages worldwide, headlining at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, the DC Jazz Festival, and Dizzy’s Jazz Club NYC with Ralph Peterson’s GenNext Big Band. She has featured at the Bern Jazz Festival with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Jazz and Gender Justice Institute, performed at the Novosibirsk Jazz Festival in Russia, and at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival with the Grammy Museum Collective. She has also recorded with artists like Donald Harrison Jr, Herlin Riley, and Shannon Powell.
In a recent interview, we explored Karen Shiraishi’s expertise, her artistic journey from classical music to jazz, her passion for live music, and her collaborative nature. Karen’s contributions to jazz highlight her talent and her role in the evolution of the genre. Her story shows the power of dedication, versatility, and the appeal of jazz music.
Let’s dive right into it, Karen. Can you tell us about your transition from your classical training to jazz?
I started playing the piano when I was three years old, and I was trained classically until I was in high school. Growing up, my parents would often listen to Stevie Wonder records around the house, and I initially started out learning songs that I liked by ear just for fun. I’ve always enjoyed the process of sitting at the piano and figuring out how my favorite songs are constructed. In that way, I guess you could say I was primed for aural learning.
When I was 14, my dad showed me an Oscar Peterson record and I immediately fell in love with his piano playing. There’s such a strong, captivating rhythmical intent in the way he plays. After discovering Oscar Peterson, I was set on learning more about jazz, so I researched and found the World Heart Beat Music Academy. From there I was introduced to their partner school, the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy. I attended both academies throughout high school, and during that time I was exposed to a lot of music.
My mentors encouraged me to apply to Berklee College of Music, and I was fortunate to receive a full-tuition scholarship. At Berklee, I got to study with people like JoAnne Brackeen, Ralph Peterson, and Terri Lyne Carrington, people who have performed alongside some of the most important figures in jazz history.
Are you entirely focused on jazz in your career, or have you continued to explore other genres and styles?
When I was coming up under the World Heart Beat Music Academy as a teenager, I would perform gigs playing other Black American music genres. My jazz learning has always happened in tandem with learning to play R&B, soul, and funk so I don’t see them as separate genres but as multiple branches of the same tree. I don’t make the distinction between the genres because they’re all part of a wider lineage, and they all have continued to interact and influence one another.
For example, when I performed at Dizzy’s Jazz Club and DC Jazz Festival alongside the late great Ralph Peterson in his GenNext Big Band, we performed an arrangement of JoAnne Brackeen’s “Egyptian Dune Dance.” The arrangement features a rap section over an odd-time signature. Performing music that combines odd-meter jazz, hip-hop and avant-garde influences showed me the possibilities of genre-mashing to come up with something fresh and exciting.
Now that I’m living in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, I’ve been investigating and familiarizing myself with more branches of the music tree. In the city you can hear traditional New Orleans music, brass band, straight-ahead jazz, funk, and folk music; each of these genres has its own history and can be categorized into several sub-genres. There’s endless music to learn from, and that’s a big part of why I moved here. This city has a very vibrant music scene tied to a robust lineage.
Gigging regularly as part of Trumpet Mafia in New Orleans has been a lot of fun, and I was very excited to perform alongside them at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They just won Offbeat Magazine’s Best of the Beat Award for Best Emerging Artist in 2017. It’s really an honor to be part of an award-winning collective and to perform at such a huge festival. Our setlist features a mix of jazz, jazz fusion, R&B, funk and hip-hop tunes. It’s probably one of the few acts in the city where you can hear Andre 3000 and Dizzy Gillespie songs on the same set.
Outside of that, I also maintain my classical piano playing in my practice. I’m currently working on Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique No.8 in C minor, Op 13.
What role do your influences play in your work today? Are you aware of your influences when you’re arranging or playing live?
Oscar Peterson was my first love in terms of piano. I’d say that he, Phineas Newborn Jr, Cedar Walton, and Mulgrew Miller are some of my influences on the piano. In terms of composition, I draw influences from Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter.
I would say I’m a hands-on learner. I like to learn how to play something before I start analyzing the theory behind it, so I feel like I gain my influences organically, through osmosis. All the music I’ve heard and played throughout my life has informed my taste and has become a part of me.
It’s also taken a lot of active listening and practice to get to this point, so I’d say I’m conscious of how I choose my influences, but they’re expressed subconsciously in my improvisation and composition. The more music I’m exposed to, the more my taste will evolve. It’s an exciting, life-long process. That’s why it’s so fun speaking with elders in music. They’ve been exposed to so much music and have decades of experience to draw from.
Is there a specific aspect that draws you to live performances, whether as a performer or a member of the audience?
The thing that draws me to seeing live music is getting to share the experience with other people. I also like to be inspired by performers who are great at connecting with the crowd. As a performer, it’s always great to see the responses from the crowd in real-time. Sometimes it can be easy to get lost in practicing in isolation, and so performing material live gives me a good gauge of whether the music is coming across in the way I want it to.
I’ve noticed that some of the best shows I’ve seen are when the audience members are active participants in the performance. I think musicians should always have the audience in mind first and foremost. I love that every live performance is different, especially when dealing with music that has an improvisational component to it. There’s a degree of uncertainty in the music that makes it exciting, and that’s what I love about both performing and seeing it performed live.
I performed at Bern Jazz Festival in 2019 as part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Jazz and Gender Justice Institute. I was psyched to play there because some of the best musicians of all time, people like Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, and B.B. King have all performed there, and the festival attracts over 30,000 people each year. I played there for five consecutive nights so I felt like I got into a stride and got a chance to gauge what the crowd connected to most. A memorable moment for me was when one night we performed “God Bless the Child,” a beautiful ballad written by Billie Holiday, and I saw a couple in the crowd sit closer to one another and started holding hands. I love experiencing those kinds of moments.
I performed at Dizzy’s Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York in 2019 as part of Ralph Peterson’s GenNext Big Band. It was for the big band’s album release. This was a big milestone for me because it’s such an iconic venue that attracts some pretty devoted jazz fans from across the world. Getting to share the stage with Ralph was a true honor.
I love that every live performance is different, especially when dealing with music that has an improvisational component to it. There’s a degree of uncertainty in the music that makes it exciting, and that’s what I love about both performing and seeing it live.
What does the average day look like for you? Do you often work on different projects at once or move on from one project to another?
Most of the time my work happens in the evening, so I enjoy having my daytime free. I wake up, shower, cook breakfast, maybe read a book, and practice. Depending on the day I might go out for lunch with some friends. I’d say being a working musician means working on multiple projects simultaneously. While it can take up a lot of mental space, I have the freedom to do what I like and work on things I’m personally interested in.
In my practice, I learn music for gigs I have coming up as well as music I’ve been curious about or want to learn for fun just because I find it fulfilling. When I get home from my gigs I always take a second to relax, and if I have time, I like to stretch or do some yoga before I go to sleep.
When I headlined Ronnie Scott’s, I had a lot of fun playing with Tony Kofi and Jas Kayser. Jas and I both came up under the World Heart Beat Music Academy and the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy as teenagers. The two schools are intertwined. A lot of my peers attended both academies and the combination of the two really fosters an environment for creating well-rounded musicians. We got to study with some of the world’s best jazz musicians there, studying with Julian Joseph and Tony Kofi really helped me develop my piano playing and my confidence. Jas and I also both went to Berklee. We’re all part of a musical community back home in London so it was a real joy playing with them again when we reunited during the pandemic.
I also enjoyed working with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Jazz and Gender Justice Institute. The Institute celebrates the contribution of women to the development of jazz, and they aim to create more equitable conditions for everyone pursuing a career in the art form. Their slogan is “jazz without patriarchy” which is an interesting concept because jazz has never existed without it, and so I like that the institute strives toward a world in which there is no patriarchy, and picture what music would sound like as a result. I love collaborating with other women musicians because we have a shared experience, so there’s a baseline understanding and empathy we tend to have for one another. The Jazz and Gender Justice Institute provides a safe and nurturing environment for us to make art, and they’re making a lasting impact in the field.
Also, Ralph Peterson is someone I will never forget. I was very grateful to have been able to perform alongside him before he passed away in March 2021.
I perform in the Davenport Lounge at the Ritz Carlton in Jeremy Davenport’s quintet as their resident pianist. I’m also working on releasing an EP later this year, so be on the lookout!