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From A Drop of Water to Dancing On the Water

It's never a good sign when you roll up on the theatre where a favorite musician is scheduled to perform and you see something dreadful on the marquee.

No, not "cancelled." Much worse than that, though after a jarring trek over a pothole-riddled interstate a cancelled show would be a major depressant. No, some idiot has actually misspelled the name of one of the performers.

The marquee outside the Royal Oak Theatre in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak announced: "Tonight at 9:00 - Bob James and Kieko Matsui."

Bob James and Kieko Matsui??

Surely I hadn't taken time off from work (without pay) and driven over 200 miles to see the wrong artist?

That was at 10:00 in the morning. By 9:00 that evening when Bob James took the stage he was accompanied by Keiko Matsui. Whew! Keiko was first class all the way in a silver gown and platform heels, but Bob was no slouch in his tuxedo. Cool. They had dressed for the occasion and many of the audience had come similarly appointed.

Four hands flying across one piano without mishap calls upon a deft pairing of both perfect timing and complete confidence in your own abilities as well as your partner, but this is a collaboration in every sense of the word. Queue up the trite cliché of East meeting West, but here it seems appropriate. Keiko, poised but somewhat remote, isn't much for chatty banter with the customers, but her dynamic technique speaks volumes. Bob has moved effortlessly from straight ahead jazz to the breezy fizzle of the theme from "Taxi" so it may come as a surprise to some in the crowd that he's got a serious groove for classical music going on.

Bob stations himself on the lower end of the 88's and it's amusing to watch when Keiko jumps up to change positions with him. Somehow you can't help but wonder how she doesn't trip in those clunky platform shoes.

But she doesn't misstep---not on the stage and not on the keyboard.

What seemed to surprise some of the audience was how much they had to actually listen to appreciate what the duo was trying to accomplish. Too many times concerts are merely an excuse for "Greatest Hits: Live" which is predictable and doesn't challenge the listener or the musicians.

Not this gig. Keiko seemed to be pushing herself in a way she doesn't on her albums. A vastly underrated pianist, Bob seemed to be enjoying demonstrating his mastery of the instrument. His relaxed demeanor and effortless playing seemed to drive the typically reserved Matsui to different levels of expression. As Keiko's music has progressed from A Drop of Water to her most recent releases, the sound has become ever more lush, but the band has been essentially stripped down to just her husband, Kazu.

A great musician benefits from playing with other great musicians. James frequently does while Matusi might benefit by stepping out of her comfort zone and working with other musicians. In a phone interview, Keiko revealed little about her next album, Deep Blue but hopefully the pairing with James will encourage Keiko and her producer Kazu to invite other collaborators to join them in the studio.

From time to time, Bob and Keiko would step away from the bench and take a seat onstage or walk off into the wings while the other soloed. The audience applauded the most familiar selections from the respective artists portfolio. The opening lines of James's "Westchester Lady" and Matsui's "Light Above the Trees" elicited the most spirited applause. During the intermission, in the line to the restroom grumbling could be overheard about the all-acoustic /no band format.

"I don't get it, " one concertgoer remarked to his buddy at the other urinal. "They start to play something I've heard and then they go off on a piano solo. I thought they were going to play their good stuff."

Such provincial thoughts might be an unfortunate byproduct from too much smooth jazz and the expectation that live music has to be a note-for-note regurgitation of the CD. The 4-Hands, One Piano Project wasn't meant to be an all-star jazz explosion jam session or some such thing. This was a opportunity for two virtuosos best known for their light jazz stylings to challenge the audience's expectations and hit them with a little classical, a little New Age and a lot of old school improvisation.

During a phone interview from her California home, Matsui noted there is a difference in how American and Japanese artists react to the acoustic performance. "American audiences are polite and quiet, but they don't seem to be as enthusiastic as Japanese audiences," Keiko said in heavily accented English. "Maybe they think if they applaud too loudly they're being rude."

If the only music Bob James and Keiko Matsui performed were classic-influenced piano soloing that might become a bit tedious over the span of a recording career. It's just a shame that there are some listeners who prefer the comfort of the familiar to the challenge presented by two artists pushing our expectations and exceeding their own.

Program:

Divertimento (for four-hands) (based on a theme by Joseph Haydn) comp. by Bob Ever After (for four-hands) (from Whisper From the Mirror) comp. by Keiko Restoration (Bob solo piano) (from Grand Piano Canyon) comp. by Bob Light Above The Trees (Keiko solo piano) (from "The Piano") comp. by Keiko Midnight Stone (arr. for four-hands by Matsui) comp. by Keiko Duo Oto Subito (for four-hands) (from "Dancing on the Water") comp. by Bob

Intermission

Westchester Lady (arr. for four-hands by James) (from "Three") comp. by Bob Invisible Wing (arr. for four-hands by James)(from Whisper From the Mirror) comp. by Keiko Hum Drum (Bob solo piano) (from "Dancing on the Water") comp. by Bob Light from the Tree (Keiko solo piano) (from "The Piano") comp. by Keiko Altair & Vega (for four-hands) (from "Dancing on the Water") comp. by Bob The Forever Variations (for four-hands) (based on "Forever, Forever" by Keiko Matsui) comp. by Bob

Jeff Winbush is a contributing writer to Columbus Alive and lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bob James and Keiko Matsui
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