INTERVIEW: Karen Street - Reflections / #IWD2015

Accordionist/saxophonist/composer KAREN STREET is a completely adaptable musician who has performed a vast range of contexts from the Strictly Come Dancing band to the Royal Shakespeare Company to Mike Westbrook's groups. In this  interview, Catherine encouraged her to reflect on various aspects of her career: 

LondonJazz News: Did you always want to be a musician and why did you choose the accordion?

Karen Street: For me a career in music wasn’t so much an ambition as something I loved, was good at and nothing else appealed. I recently came across an old diary written when I was fourteen years old - it was an amusing read but what struck me most was how much music there was in my life and coming from a non-musical family this now seems like a stroke of luck. There was an accordion school of all things in my home town of Burton-on-Trent which is how I happened to learn the accordion, following in my brother’s footsteps. Playing in an accordion band as well as playing clarinet and saxophone in my local wind band and jazz band, I had concerts at least once a week.
This was of course in the days of free instrumental lessons something that I fear many children now miss out on.

LJN: Did you go on to study music for further education?

KS: After school I studied for a music degree at Newton Park in Bath (now Bath Spa University), again striking lucky as I was able to get lessons in five instruments with great teachers. This was followed by a postgraduate year at the Welsh College of Music and Drama where I had the freedom to just practice. At that time I was listening to Pat Metheny, Weather Report, the Brecker Brothers, Deodato, Al Jarreau and also Messian, Bach, Prokovief and Berg alongside playing difficult music by contemporary composers for the accordion.

I always wrote music from my first composition at the age of seven, through my school years, writing and arranging for any school ensembles. My one regret is that I didn’t study composition, but I count myself lucky to have studied music at all as I was told by the careers teacher that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of music. I also turned down a place on the Leeds College of Music jazz course (back then it wasn’t a recognised qualification for teaching so was advised against going), but it seemed Jazz was trying to find me as an invitation to join the Mike Westbrook Orchestra slowly steered me towards it and Jazz now forms the biggest part of my performing career. I am enormously grateful to Mike for the opportunity he gave me and I am still involved in his projects to this day.

LJN: Did you follow the example of other accordion players?

KS: Because I play wind instruments, mostly the saxophone, I think I have had a different approach to playing and writing for the accordion, almost wanting it to sound ‘not like an accordion’; I like the textures it can create and its ability to sustain fills a space unlike any other instrument, it can blend well with other instruments as well has having many different colours of its own. Although people generally hear the right hand of the accordion (the one with the piano keys) the left hand (the one with the buttons) is important for solo work and the invention of the free bass accordion (which enables the bass to play single notes like the left hand on the piano) revolutionised the instrument, mainly in classical music but also for me in jazz.

Before the internet I hardly listened to any accordion players and what I did hear I didn’t like with the exception of Jack Emblow (one of my all time favourite jazz players). Now I can hear accordionists from all over the world. Richard Galliano is an inspiration, I like his energy,virtuosity and versatility, but what interests me most are the players and composers that are more adventurous in their composition. e.g Guy Klucevsek (USA), Maria Kalaniemi (Finland), Kimmo Pohjonen (Finland), Laurent Derache (France) to mention only a few (there are so many accordion players out there).

LJN: What are your thoughts on women in music?

KS: As a latecomer to jazz I often feel I am not in a position to comment on the jazz scene or the state of women in jazz, the discussion of which comes up time and time again. I think it is comparable to many other areas of male domination. There are more women visible in jazz now and I think it will continue to grow, it all takes time and it’s up to the women in jazz now to keep playing and encourage girls to take part. I was discussing this with a group of women of my age and we agreed that it is improving but that the test was if women could stay in the profession because they have so much going on in their lives. I know this is like a stuck record but even with the most supportive of partners we still ‘generally’ (or are programmed this way) oversee the kids and look after parents which takes up a vast amount of time and head space.

Also even though there are more young players coming through, big bands still seem to be mostly male dominated but if an all female band is formed this is often seen as a novelty? On the other hand classical music in the UK has really moved on - there are lots of female brass players now where it used to be just strings and woodwind. The Vienna Philharmonic only has very few female members however the orchestra's record on ethnic diversity is even worse but that’s another story.

LJN: What about your own experiences?

KS: When I returned to study jazz at the Guildhall (at the age of 36) I was the only female apart from the vocalists and this felt very intimidating - plus my knowledge of jazz wasn't great having not studied it formally. The whole experience did put me off jazz for a while and certainly the saxophone. It was only when I started to apply what I had learnt on the course to the accordion that I started to find my own voice. At this time I also started playing some of Tim Garland’s compositions which took me to places I hadn’t explored on the instrument before.

At the suggestion of Mike Westbrook I brought out a solo album of original music, with contributions from Stan Sulzman and Fred Baker which was received really well. Two more CD followed and now I have just released a fourth, Unfurled.

LJN: Tell us about your quartet Streetworks (Mike Outram on guitar, Will Harris on bass, Andy Tweed on saxophone, Karen Street on accordion) and the new album “Unfurled”.

KS: I think I have found in the players in STREETWORKS a great sound and good level of communication. Our new album Unfurled is a contemplative album and reflects my time of life. Youth and excitement is far away, there is a sense of loss with children moving away, parents dying or succumbing to dementia, a sadness which is very present at the moment but which will I hope take more of a back seat as time passes, indicated in the more optimistic tracks.

My aim is to communicate with an audience on an emotional level rather than achieving any wow factor. I have realised that I have to be comfortable with the people I play with to perform at my best. I think jazz mirrors your personality - I can be very shy but with moments of recklessness, sounds like a title for the next album! I think I also have a lot of anger against the injustices of the world and I would dearly like to find a way of expressing this through my music.

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