Shoko Igarashi is a jazz musician and composer based in New York City. She plays the Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone and the flute. In 2016, she released Alarm Call, her first major album. She studied at Berklee College of Music and has played jazz around the world. In this interview, Shoko shares her advice for young musicians, what attracted her to Jazz, and what inspires her music.
When did you first know that you wanted to become a professional musician?
Before wanting to become a professional musician, I wanted to learn the saxophone. I had seen a brass band at school when I was about 10 and I remember being instantly mesmerized by the sound the tenor saxophone was making as well as the shape of it. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to be able to play this instrument. First I was picking up songs by ear from the TV then I quickly started learning how to play jazz and improvise. My passion for this music only kept growing since then.
At 15, I decided to leave my hometown of Yamagata to attend one of the rare boarding high schools that had a jazz program in the Tokyo area. There, my classmates and I often talked about our possible future career in music. To be honest, as a teenager I didn’t have a very definite idea yet of what a musical career really was.
Of course, I had heard how difficult it is to become successful as a musician so I had doubts about taking that path. But I chose to become a saxophonist anyway.
Now my goal in life is much clearer and I’m playing music every single day.
Jazz improvisation has boundless possibilities.
What first made you fall in love with Jazz?
When I got accepted into the music high school in Tokyo, my mother took me to a jazz concert as a gift. This concert turned out to be some of Japan’s best free jazz musicians. There I saw the saxophonist Akira Sakata. I was blown away. I had never been exposed to this kind of playing before and this was a revelation to me. I remember feeling astounded and baffled by what he was playing. Although I did not completely understand that particular style of music at the time, I could feel the energy and the intense virtuosity of what was coming across from the stage.
I was thinking to myself: ‘Wow! So you can play like that too!?’ This made me realize that jazz improvisation has boundless possibilities.
What was it like studying at Berklee?
I’ve always known about Berklee being one of the world’s top colleges for jazz. It was my first saxophone teacher who told me about it when I was about 10 years old. Since then, it has always been my dream to study Jazz abroad, preferably in New York or Boston. When I passed the audition and got a scholarship to Berklee, I couldn’t believe it. That was a one of those dream come true experience! My time there couldn’t have been more exciting. I met so many amazing talents from all around the globe, speaking different languages (musically and literally), got exposed to a huge variety of styles and cultures.
It was like I had finally found what I truly wanted to learn. The teachers could really answer all of my questions and satisfying my thirst of knowledge.
At Berklee, the teachers are as great educators as they are musicians, so they really understand the students on a high artistic and human level.
Many people dream of becoming a professional musician but few actually do it. What is it really like? Is it harder than you thought? Do you ever get tired of music?
There are many kinds of professional musicians (for example producers, composers, arrangers)… For me, my ambition is to be a live performer and recording artist. Everyone has a different situation as far as career goes but in a big city like New York, the reality is that a lot of musicians sometimes have to find other ways to make an income other than playing music. Some have jobs, they teach, or play in many bands even if it’s not the music that they really want to do.
As for me, I never get tired of music. Music is an inherent part of my life. I feel like I can never live long enough to discover all the music that is out there and my interests and tastes never stop evolving.
Composing music, to me, is a form of meditation or prayer.
I listened to your album Alarm Call, and it is really great. Were there any particular experiences or feelings that inspired the songs on the album?
“Alarm Call” is dedicated to my father and the experience I lived during the time that he spent in the hospital after he had a stroke. During his convalescence, I went to visit him every day at the hospital, and one day I saw him surrounded by all these machines when an alarm went off suddenly and almost traumatized me. It made me worried more than I could say. The alarm was signaling an arrhythmia in his heart. My brother who is doctor arrived and reassured me that he was going to be ok.
After I came home from the hospital, in my incapacity to fix what was happening to my father, all I felt I could do was to compose a song for him. That was the only way for me to get through this and it helped me slowly to accept the reality.
What is your songwriting process like?
I usually envision the feeling of the tune and its general aesthetic before I sit down and write it on paper. First I think of the chords and then I add the melody.
I guess composing music, to me, is a form of meditation or prayer.
Jazz is famous for having a lot of improvisation. Do you usually improvise or play songs that are already written?
I do both! I write my songs and improvise on them.
I don’t write my solos. I like to keep creating fresh ideas when I play saxophone. I try to have my solo make sense, in other words I don’t want them to sound random. I emphasize the attachment to certain rules and music theory.
When I play with the band I want to have a musical conversation with the other players.
The interaction between the members of the group is very important to me. This kind of interplay sometimes happens, sometimes not. But when surprises happen, those moments make me happy.
What are some of your favorite musical artists that continue to inspire you?
Jimmy heath is 90 and still playing. He really inspires me.
I saw him live so many times. I loved and listened to his entire discography and I’ve been collecting rare vinyl of his for years now. He’s a really great composer and arranger.
He wrote some of my all-time favorite tunes. His big band stuff is amazing and his chamber music saxophone quartet too. What inspires me the most is that even at his level and age he is still improving, still searching, and developing his sound. Every time I go see him play, I discover something new.
Did you experience culture shock moving from Japan to the United States?
When I first moved to the US. Every day, everything was a culture shock. Most things in America are different from Japan. I was enjoying those differences.
The most surprising thing was how tasty orange juice is in the US!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a professional musician?
I’m still looking for advice myself but I would say: make your goal as visible and concrete as you can. Organize your thoughts and ideas. If you imagine something, it already means you are allowing yourself to imagine, therefore it’s possible to accomplish it eventually.
But most important, you have to learn how to manage yourself with your career, especially at the beginning.
What’s next for Shoko Igarashi?
I would like to make a new album by 2019. It will be all original compositions I think.
I really want to challenge myself on this one. I’ve met musicians in New York City I would like to record with. Now I’m in the process of envisioning what the music will be.
Until then, I will keep playing gigs in NYC and abroad. I would really love to travel around the world with my music.