Keiko Matsui Takes A “Journey To the Heart”

Keiko Matsui (photo: © Jordan Perlman. All Rights Reserved. )

Out of pain comes growth and in 2007, Keiko Matsui, emerged from a divorce, record label troubles, and embraced her new singularity by striking out in a bold new direction as she traveled to South Africa, paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the results was the adventurous Moyo, one of the brightest and best recordings of a 30-year career.

Fast forward nine years and Matsui’s back at it again with Journey To The Heart,  a spirited and joyful project that brims with equal parts euphoric passion and unbridled brilliance as Matsui seems invigorated as a player, composer, and bandleader. Paired with a drum-head tight new band, this is her finest album in nearly a decade.

Don’t call it world beat. Put a Japanese pianist in the studio with a Cuban bassist and drummer, (Del Puerto and Branley) add a guitarist from Peru (Stagnero) and a percussionist from Venzuela (Quintero) then just for grins invite a dazzling harmonica player from Switzerland (Maret) to join in on the festivities, and what you have is Matsui’s 27th album as a leader as she stakes out a bold new direction as she moves into more acoustic music. Intact is her signature precision on the piano and her stately compositions and arrangements.

I don’t have any proof,  but I wonder if Matsui stripping down her sound to a more acoustic setting has anything to do with another Japanese pianist, Hiromi Uehara unplugging with her Trio Project to positive reviews.   It’s possible, if not provable…

It takes supreme confidence in yourself and your fellow musicians to reign in and allow them to take the lead and compliment them instead of relegating them to little more than sidemen. Taking few solos here, Matsui has always been willing to unselfishly share the spotlight as her duet with Greigoire Maret on the riveting “Two Harbors” is ample evidence of.

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“Moving On” and “Carnival” are two romper stompers featuring guitarist Ramon Stagnero who nimbly navigates his way as Matsui trades leads with him until percussionist Luis Quintero brings it home. It’s exciting to follow in a way Matsui’s recent outings with studio pros were not.

Too many musicians reach a stage in their careers where they seemingly say, “That’s good enough. I’ve done a few different things. I can just keep making the same old same old with different titles and it will sell.” Maybe that’s true for a dinosaur rock band content to go on stage and crank out the hits, but for a jazz artist, that is a shortcut to stagnation and musical death.

When jazz musicians play it safe and are content to just make the donuts, it ceases to be jazz and becomes instrumental pop without vocals and who needs that? Keiko Matsui will never get her proper due for remaining true to the spirit of innovators and risk-takers who elevated the idiom, but Journey To The Heart serves as the testimonial she’s richly deserving of the accolades.

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“We need to find that common bond in our hearts. People are dying with violence, hunger and war. This music is my new journey,” explains  Matsui. “It is an evolution in many ways. I hope I can make a path and make some noise and leave a positive effect on the world. This is my mission and I am dedicating my music to this cause.”
Track Listing: Moving On; Carnival; The Edge of Twilight; Butterfly; Casablanca; Journey To The Heart; Havana Nights; New Beginning; Two Harbors; Blue Rose

Personnel: Keiko Matsui: piano; Carlitos Del Puerto: bass; Jimmy Branley: drums; Ramon Stagnero: guitars; Luis Quintero: percussion; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; JP Mourao; additional guitar (2), Randy Waldman; string arrangement (4, 6, 8); Gary Stockdale: string arrangement (10)

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Shanachie Records | Style: Modern Jazz

(This review originally appeared in a different form at All About Jazz)

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