Keiko Matsui: A Love Affair with Music.

Keiko Matsui: being great isn't the same thing as being popular.


What’s popular isn’t always good because too often what’s good isn’t popular and just because you’re good doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular.   If you’re a fan of jazz music you become accustomed to this.   You accept that you’re a  fan of a kind of  music  most people not only don’t get, they won’t even hear.

I confess to  having a soft spot for women in jazz.     It takes commitment to play a genre of music that is mostly ignored by the public unless your name is Norah Jones or Diana Krall and jazz is a bigger boys club than even rock n’ roll.   Jazz music goes unappreciated in America and if you’re a woman playing piano, drums, bass or saxophone,  I’ve got nothing but love and respect for you, because jazz isn’t easy to play and it’s hard to get recognized. 

Back in 2002 following the creation of his own record label the saxophonist Branford Marsalis said in an interview, If you’re not selling, you’re out. That’s all it is now. My buddies who record for multinational labels are forced to play standards so they can sell another 10 copies from radio play. I don’t believe in radio as a marketing tool. Radio sells pop records, not artistic records. The first thing I’m going tell anybody that records for me is ‘no standards.’ ”

Jazz is called America’s classical music, but the genre represents less than 3 percent of music sales.  The fan base of jazz is knowledgeable, fierecely loyal and pififully small.  Most musicians have to tour relentlessly and usually find the audiences in Europe,  Japan and other countries more receptive than Americans fed a steady diet of pop music and American Idol.

For over 20 years I’ve been a fan of the Japanese pianist, Keiko Matsui.   I’ve seen her live and interviewed her twice.  I’ve  been astonished by the consistency she has to her artistic vision.  No standards.  No cover tunes.  No big guest star blow-outs.  No overly commercial moves.

On one hand, for 22 years, the Japanese pianist Keiko Matsui has been a bit more consistent.  She makes a new album every two years, keeps the compositions about four  to five minutes in length, and never panders to fashion by doing the same thing everyone else is doing.   In her own quiet way she’s sold over a million records, which may not sound like all that much over a career spanning two decades, but when  one considers how few people buy jazz, it’s really something of a compliment.

A classically trained pianist from Tokyo, Matsui’s music is a hybrid of jazz, new age and classical music without being shackled to any one tradition   Choosing a favorite Keiko Matsui album is difficult, because none of them are bad,  a few are brilliant and all of them have something to recommend.

Often Matsui is dropped into the smooth jazz  ghetto, but it’s really only because she doesn’t fit neatly into any other category.   Too adventuresome for contemporary jazz and too jazzy for New Age  and too far from classical, her music is a hybrid of all those genres, but with a Eastern  flavor.   The “Keiko Matsui sound” was in no small part shaped by her ex-husband, Kazu Matsui who produced all of her albums  up until her most recent one in 2007.


Somebody once said Matsui’s music sounded like the soundtrack of a movie never made.   I like that description.  Her music is lush, layered and etheral.  That’s not to say Matsui can’t make music you can dance to.  She does, but it’s her East mets West approach  towards her compositions where a sense of place and creating uniquely lush soundscapes. 

It’s the kind of music a good pair of stereo speakers were made for. 

Some writers need absolute silence and solitude to do their thing.  Not me.   Too much quiet makes it harder, not easier, for me to be creative.   By the same token, I can’t fully focus with AC/DC or Ludacris screaming and yelling at me.  There is a time and a place for that sort of music, but not when I’m trying to find my creative sweet spot.

That’s when I need a cold Diet Coke, a comfortable chair and some Keiko Matsui music and I’m good to go.   Writing is an introspective endeavor and I need music that sets the mood.   keiko3

Right now it’s Deep Blue (2001) playing.   I’ve already said I like all 15 of her albums I own, but this one is a particular favorite.   When it’s been a rotten day, I’m in a rotten mood and I’m all out of balance this album is a tonic.   It chills me out and puts me in a different head space.

Describing why you fall in love with a certain musician is kind of an odd thing.  It’s like explaining why you fell in love with your spouse.  

Long ago and far away when musicians released albums, there were always a handful of artists whom I would buy on faith.   The list includes Santana, The Isley Brothers,  Led Zeppelin, Sade, Living Colour, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince and of course, Keiko Matsui. 

Santana went soft and commercial.  The Isley Brothers died off and fell off.  Led Zeppelin broke up.  Sade disappeared.  Living Colour broke up, got back together, but lost momentum.  Stevie Wonder only makes a new album once or twice every a decade. Michael became a bad joke and Prince just made too many lousy records in a row.   

That just leaves Keiko. 

Since I don’t cheat on I’m forced to rely on Matusi as the outlet of a one-sided love affair.  But it’s nothing creepy.  Every few years she emerges from Japan, drops 40-minute of music on me, the last one being Moyo in 2007 and then she’s gone again.

It’s about that time.  Just can’t wait.