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)

Keiko Matsui Live: Our Woman From Tokyo

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Most of the time releasing a live album is a good way to mark time between trips to the studio as they are quick and easy cash grabs where a musician sells the fans a cheap ticket to a show they weren’t at. The Rolling Stones are masters of this slick tactic with no less than a dozen official live albums in their discography.

The fatal flaw with live albums is they are audio representations of a visual performance. This is a flaw resolved by Keiko Matsui as she goes all-in on Live in Tokyo, a CD and DVD document of her two-year tour in support of Soul Quest (Shanachie, 2013).

Live In Tokyo leans hard on Soul Quest (Shanachie, 2013), with seven of the 13 tracks coming from that album where Matsui fully embraced her smooth jazz following. The Keiko Matsui Sound formerly represented an East-meets-West hybrid of classical, New Age and jazz with a Japanese flourish provided by ex-husband Kazu Matsui’s shakahuchi. That part of sound vanished eight years ago after they divorced. A different sort of soul quest began which took Keiko Matsui to Africa and that lid a creative spark in the brilliantly underrated Moyo (Shout Factory, 2007)

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Since then, Matsui has released two albums of new material and now a live CD/DVD. Now live jazz albums rarely rise to the raucous level of Frampton Comes Alive!, but this audience is so quiet and polite you may forget it is is a live album. That’s okay, because this is still a great showcase for Matsui as not only a superb pianist, composer and arranger, but as a bandleader.

On stage Soul Quest gets a shot of energy played live that was missing in the studio which suffered a bit too much from overproduction. Stripped down to a hot five-piece band, Matsui is welcomes special guests Kirk Whalum and Chuck Loeb who both played on Soul Quest,as they faithfully reproduce the album. Taking it to the stage was a smart move by Matsui and Shanachie Records which deserves kudos because some labels would not show this level of support for even the most established artist.

The DVD not only is a visual document of the Tokyo concert, it is evidence of her status as a global ambassador and humanitarian which took Matsui from the Ukraine to Russia, Greece, Peru and other parts of the globe. It was 26 years ago when Matsui released her third album entitled No Borders. Now it’s an established fact. There are no borders for Matsui and Live In Tokyo is a four-star finish to the latest chapter in Matsui’s musical journey and a bridge to her next destination.

Track Listing: Dream Seeker‭; ‬Black Lion‭; ‬Forever Forever‭; ‬Caricias‭; ‬Proof‭; ‬Affirmation‭; ‬Soul Quest‭; ‬Safari‭; ‬Stingo‭; ‬Bridge Over the Stars‭; ‬Antarcia–A Call To Action‭; ‬A Night With Cha Cha‭; ‬Deep Blue (DVD has same track listing except “Deep Blue”).

Personnel: Keiko Matsui:‭ ‬piano,‭ ‬keyboards‭; ‬vocals‭; ‬Dave Karasony:‭ ‬drums‭; ‬Rico Belled:‭ ‬bass‭; ‬J.P.‭ ‬Mourao:‭ ‬guitar‭; ‬Tom Braxton:‭ ‬saxophone‭; ‬Chuck Loeb:‭ ‬guitar‭; ‬Kirk Whalum:‭ ‬saxophone

Record Label: Shanachie Records

This review originally appeared in All About Jazz

Jazz Needs Fewer Critics and More Fans

“Gimme a good review, Jeff!” You got it, George.

It’s been a little quiet around here.  I wasn’t planning on taking a Christmas break, but the demands of work and home call and would not be denied.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Either you’re going to do something or you’re not. If you really want to drop 25 pounds or find another job or scale the Himalayas then you will. Or you won’t.

A new year doesn’t just mark new beginnings, it can mean the end of old ways and old relationships. That’s why 2013 will be the year I stop reviewing jazz.   I’m  not having a crisis of confidence and I haven’t given up jazz in favor of death metal or country  music.   It is time to put a fork in it.   After a decade of writing and listening to jazz, I’ve used up all the words I have.  I don’t have an original thought left in me.

For months now there has been a half-dozen albums sitting on my desk waiting for me to review…and waiting..and waiting.   Some of the CDs are quite good actually.  A few are okay and one or two are totally lame.   My problem is I can’t work up any enthusiasm for even the ones I like.  It’s not exactly writer’s block.   I’m numb to it and in some ways that’s worse than not being unable to come up with 500 words for a review.

You! Go out and listen to some jazz!

I’ve contributed to All About Jazz since 2006 and written 102 reviews and several interviews. The career-spanning conversation I had with the .great George Duke was one of the best I’ve ever conducted and after it was published I knew I’d never write another for AAJ. It was epic in length, exhaustive in the research and limited in impact.  The Duke interview generated over 17,000 page hits. That’s a nice number.  For a blog post.  In relation to the time and effort I put into it the result was a big disappointment.

That’s was the point where I began to wonder, “Does this really make any difference to anyone?”

After close to a decade of writing reviews for AAJ and Jazz Review.com, I’m gratified for all the music I’ve been allowed to hear and the artists I’ve been allowed to interview. Speaking with Patti Austin, Keiko Matsui, Harvey Mason, George Benson, Rachel Z., Everette Harp, Gerri Allen, Cheryl Bentyne, Jane Monheit, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jessy J., Nestor Torres, Chris Standring, Al Jarreau and Cindy Bradley among others was big fun. Musicians are my most favorite persons to interview.

Yet I’m frustrated that the following of jazz is so small. I’m frustrated when an artist asks me what the best venue for live jazz in town is and my answer is “There isn’t one.” I’m frustrated even when I give a jazz release a four-star rating, it will be nearly impossible to walk into what’s left of the music section of a Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Barnes & Noble and buy it.

Check out Billboard’s 2012 Year-End Charts for Jazz Albums and you know what sold the best?  A Michael Buble Christmas album!   Michael Buble?  Are you yanking me?

Can the savior of jazz get a chair?

It gets worse.  The top Five is rounded out by Duets II by Tony Bennett, Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney, Dead Sinatra’s Best of the Rest, and That’s Life from Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., whom I’ve never heard of, but I guess he was on “American Idol” so that makes him a big deal.   The first album I’ve even heard of is Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society at No. 6 ( and I thought it was lousy).

My favorite jazz recording of 2012 was Najee’s  The Smooth Side of Soul which came in at #26.   It’s been that kind of year.

Jazz is not dead. It’s not even sick. As long as there are young artists still playing pianos, strumming guitars, pounding drums and blowing horns, the tradition carries on. What I fear is jazz being ignored. You don’t hear it on the radio. You never see it on television. Jazz is not the music of the young. It’s a tough time to be a fan if you don’t live in a city with a jazz scene or radio stations that still program it.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to Hiromi’s  “Move” upcoming in March.    The Japanese piano virtuoso has been a consistently interesting talent whose rise I’ve followed since 2003.    When Hiromi released her third album Brain in 2006,  I positively bubbled with excitement.   THIS is why we love jazz. It’s exciting to see an artist develop. It’s thrilling to hear how self-assured and confident a group of musicians can become when they learn, grow and develop their talents together. It’s a joyous and satisfying experience when it all comes together in a burst of aesthetic brilliance. “

I meant every hyperbolic word, but I don’t get that feeling as often from as many jazz artists any longer.

I may not give up critiquing jazz entirely, but I will ring down the curtain on my AAJ contributions. My taste in jazz  always were more mainstream than the majority of their writers.   I know a lot about jazz artists, but many times AAJ’s annual  “Best of” lists  didn’t have a single name on it I recognized.   There isn’t much use for someone who prefers  Fourplay,  Jeff Lorber or Norman Brown to some Yugoslavian thumb piano player.

My love for jazz  still runs strong, but I’ve run out of words to express that love.  I began covering this music because I wanted to spread what Kirk Whalum calls “the gospel according to jazz.”   I’m still  excited by its endless energy and uncanny creativity, but I have doubts I’ve been as effective advocate for jazz as I hoped I would.  Looking at  what is currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts and it’s more like “snooze jazz” to me.

Maybe what jazz needs are fewer critics getting the music for free and more paying fans to keep it alive.

Jazz doesn’t need saviors. It needs supporters.

One Piano, Two Musicians, Four Hands Equal a Captvating Collaboration

James and Matsui take a break from the smooth jazz syndrome.

In a culture inundated with movies that go unseen, books that go unread and music that goes unheard, it’s easy for worthy art to slip through the cracks. That was the sad and undeserved fate of the 2011 Bob James and Keiko Matsui four-hand piano collaboration, Altair & Vega. Solo recordings are a standard for jazz pianists, and James’ and Matsui’s training and love of classical music are familiar to their fans, but two musicians playing one piano at the same time is something a little bit different.

Altair and Vega are two stars that pass each other once a year, but it took 11 years for James and Matsui to link up and fully realize what began with “Ever After,” their first collaboration with piano for four hands on Matsui’s Whisper From the Mirror (Narada, 2000). A year later, Matsui joined James for two tracks on his underrated Dancing On the Water (Warner Brothers, 2001). After a decade, the two mainstays of smooth jazz reunited for a record highly unlikely to receive much airplay by any smooth jazz radio station.

The interplay between the two is joyful and at times dazzling. James’ “Divertimento,” with its apt subtitle, not only allows “The Professor and the Student” to show off their considerable chops, it’s playful fun. Things get a bit more serious on Matsui’s “Frozen Lake,” and the grandiose “The Forever Variations” is stately without being stiff or overly solemn. James and Matsui are not trying to set the music world on its ear as much as they are just coming together to jam.

To the extent this is a jazz record, the playing is never less than impressive, as the pianists’ pairing inspires them to greater heights than those they occasionally settle for. Whether Altair & Vega qualifies as light classical music or granola-free New Age is a subjective judgment. What is beyond question is how much effort has to go into the four-hands/one piano approach. This is harder than it looks folks, and one need go no further than the companion DVD for proof—a live concert filmed at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh last year.

On his own or with Fourplay, James has been a staple on the radio, if not the “best of” critics list.  Likewise for Matsui whose style blends jazz, classical and New Age and whose playing is tasteful and cerebral while remaining completely accessible.   Neither pianist needs to prove anything to anybody, and freed from any commercial considerations this collaboration is relaxed and casual.  Nothing terribly dramatic happens, but James and Matsui clearly are having fun.

So why didn’t Altair & Vega hit? Perhaps it not being remotely smooth jazz confused the pianists’ usual audience. Perhaps the surnames of James and Matsui didn’t catch the interest of more traditional audiences who associate the duo with smooth jazz. Either way, it’s not too late for both audiences to tune into this terrific collaboration.

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.com

Keiko Matsui: And The Road…goes on.

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.

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.