Jazz vocalist Kaoruko Pilkington takes a playful, adventurous approach to the music she’s been singing for many years in the Greater Boston area. As an arranger, she loves to apply surprising twists to songs you’ve heard before, dust off less familiar entries in the Great American Songbook, and put her own jazzy spin on pop classics. As a bandleader, she taps some of the city’s best musicians to join her on exciting musical excursions, in clubs and concerts as well as on recordings.
Born in Japan, Karouko began playing piano at the age of four, and was often chosen to play and sing at school events. She grew up immersed in the sounds of American pop, and in college she studied jazz and listened to favorite singers, including Carmen McRae, Marlena Shaw, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, and Aretha Franklin. She spent more than ten years playing and singing jazz, pop, R&B, and rock in Tokyo nightclubs, until her deep
love for American music eventually brought her to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. There she focused on vocal performance and jazz composition, and also embarked on private studies in improvisation, arranging, theory, and pedagogy with trombonist and legendary jazz educator Hal Crook, which she continued for many years.
Upon graduating in 1996, Kaoruko quickly hit the circuit of restaurants and clubs in Boston and the surrounding area. She has performed with her kaorukojazz ensemble and in smaller configurations at such venues as Ryles and the Lilypad in Cambridge, the Acton Jazz Café, and radio station WICN in Worcester. She is also one of the hosts for a long-standing Tuesday night jam session at Framingham’s Amazing Things Arts Center.
Kaoruko’s first recording, the self-produced Joy Spring, set the tone for her repertoire with reimagined standards, scatting and wordless vocalizing, and forays into Brazilian music. In addition to Mauro Rongordo on guitar and Thomas Hebb on bass, it also features longtime bandmates and Boston musical aces Mark Shilansky on piano, Bob Tamagni on drums, and Greg Hopkins on trumpet and flugelhorn, who reappear (along with bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, saxophonist Rick DeMuzio, trombonist Bob Pilkington, pianist Doug Johnson, and drummer Casey Scheurell) on her 2014 release, Bright Side of My Life. Of this outing George W. Harris wrote in Jazz Weekly, “Most impressive here is her flowing, wordless treatment of Pat Metheny’s ‘Bright Size Life’ and a dreamy take of Jimmy Webb’s ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ . . . Tasty and delicate.” Her horn-like improvisations honor the original melodies of songs while exploring the jazz idioms and vocabulary ingrained in her through her intensive studies with Hal Crook.
Since the late 1990s, Kaoruko has enjoyed a related career as a voice teacher. She has taught at UMass Dartmouth and Boston Conservatory, and numerous local studios and schools, as well as in her own studio in Ashland, MA. Coming full circle at her alma mater, she is now teaching in the Voice Department at Berklee, and is an adjunct at Wellesley College.
Kaoruko’s teaching is informed by her own study of vocal technique and pedagogy with Jeannette LoVetri, an internationally acclaimed voice specialist based in New York City and founder of Somatic Voicework™ the LoVetri Method. She completed the Contemporary Commercial Music Vocal Pedagogy Institute, held at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, and is a certified instructor of Somatic Voicework™ the LoVetri Method. With students, she stresses the importance of a healthy and functional vocal mechanism as the essential foundation for style and technique. She also teaches jazz improvisation, passing along the deep knowledge of improv technique and theory acquired over her years of study.
In addition to teaching in the Boston area, Kaoruko also gives workshops, clinics, and private lessons in Japan. She is a member of NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing).