Keiko Matsui has been out of the studio but relentlessly trotting the globe since 2007’s Moyo (Shout! Factory), her acclaimed South African-inspired recording that featured the Japanese-born pianist/composer/producer collaborating with trumpeter Hugh Masakela, among others. The Road… (Shanachie, 2011) marks the further evolution of her signature sound and demonstrates a new chapter in her artistic growth. “When I started this project I spent a lot of time reflecting on the soul and where it comes from,” Matsui explains. “I am on a new journey and have come this far and I still find that is life is wonderful…even the challenges create a beautiful tapestry and the road continues.” The lush and elegant musical soundscapes of Matsui’s style remain intact on The Road…, but with a greater emphasis on rhythm and interaction with her band than ever before.
All About Jazz: Welcome back, Miss Matsui. It’s been four years since Moyo, and that is the longest drought we’ve had to go between albums. Where have you been?
Keiko Matsui: Actually, I was traveling so much touring the US and Europe and, at the same time, I had to reorganize my business, so I now have a new team handling my management.
AAJ: It’s good to have you back. The Road... seems like a continuation of the journey you began with Moyo.
KM: Since I was traveling through many countries, the experiences I had were so special. I really experienced the music beyond culture, religion and all those things. The spirituality is very important to my music. Going through this great experience and at the same time hardship, because the tour on the road is not on a fancy bus. It is a really hard trip. All these experiences really reflect through my music. At this time, I wanted to make this record really unique. Technology is really happening and I wanted to make this music with some very special musicians.
AAJ: You have both old, familiar musicians on this record like Gary Stockdale, Derek Nakamoto and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, as well as some new ones like Kirk Whalum and Richard Bona. How did you meet Richard Bona?
KM: I met him about four or five years ago. We were introduced by a Japanese journalist. She recommended him and I met him when he was playing in Tokyo. When I started thinking of my last album, Moyo, that was my first self-produced album and I thought I would invite him to be on this one. We met in New York and at that time we did two songs together. He is a great artist. He co-produced three songs and co-wrote two songs.
AAJ: So, it was pretty much a collaboration that clicked pretty easily?
KM: Yes. I was composing the material and I brought them to New York. He listened to it and started improvising, then we went into the studio and started recording. Usually, I’ve been doing all the composing of the material and for me the melody is very important. I communicate at the piano and collect all the material. The next part is developing the song, but in this case it was very special with Richard.
AAJ: Kirk Whalum’s saxophone sound is distinctive, and this is the first time he’s played on one of your records. What made you decide to ask him to play on The Road...?
KM: I have known Kirk for many years, and we’ve met at so many concerts and festivals. I knew he was a great artist and a respected person. When I composed the song “Affirmation,” the melody that came to me seemed right for Kirk. I thought of him because this is like the anthem for my life. I immediately thought of Kirk’s sound. This is the first time I invited him to the studio and it was a great session.
AAJ: Vinnie Colaiuta is someone you played with when you were first getting started as a recording artist, isn’t he?
KM: Yes. He played on four or five songs on this album. Vinnie played on my first album, A Drop of Water (Countdown, 1987). When I first recorded in the US, he was the first drummer for me. He and [bassist] Nathan East were my first rhythm section. That was a great memory and I know he has been playing with great artists. I thought I would ask him if he would play on my record again and he said, “I’d love to do it.”
AAJ: “Embrace & Surrender” might come as something of a surprise to anyone who thinks, “Oh, she plays smooth jazz.” It’s what Keiko Matsui would sound like, if she only played straight-ahead contemporary jazz.
KM: That song is very special to me. When the melody came to me it just spoke to me. I thought, “I don’t need a horn section or anything.” I brought the material to Vinnie and Reggie Hamilton, the bassist and we started playing. James Hara played guitar and Derek (Nakamoto) arranged it. I really like this song and I hope the audience will too, when we play it in concert.
AAJ: Are you and Bob James planning to do any more four-hands piano duets?
KM: We are going to release an album of our duets, but we don’t know when. Bob has a Fourplay album to promote and I have The Road..., so we have to wait awhile before we can put the record out, but it should be this year.
AAJ: When you called this record The Road…, did it mean something more than just all the touring and the time you spend traveling?
KM: Yes. I am the mother of two children and it is very difficult for me to leave my children behind. They usually stay with my mother in Tokyo, but sometimes I do take them with me. When I cannot, we are all very sad, but it is always better when we are with each other again. For me being on the road means some sadness when I away from my family, but it also means joy, because I can play my music and know that I am bringing some happiness to others.
AAJ: This is your 22nd album, and you have been making music for 24 years. You don’t do cover tunes. You don’t try to keep up with changing trends or tastes. You don’t pander. You just make very honest music. Is it hard maintaining true to your musical vision?
KM: I never thought I would be able to do this, but music is for me a spiritual journey and it makes me happy to know there are people who want to share this journey with me. I am thankful for the great musicians who play on my albums and in my band and I am thankful for the people who come to see us. My music is my way of sharing my dreams of peace on earth.
This interview originally appeared at All About Jazz.com.