Keiko Matsui & Bob James Combine East/West Music Connections

The world of contemporary jazz is no stranger to great instrumentalist who collaborate on projects together. Just like the bebop and early swing eras of the past, we have a great engaging synthesis of two great artists on the same instrument with two new releases and a world tour to usher in the New Year. This January in Japan, a great tour begins with two-time Grammy winner Bob James of America and a favorite daughter of Japan, number one female contemporary jazz artist, Keiko Matsui. The new millennium brings a great 30-date tour of four hands piano literature from two very prominent light-jazz artist who are well known for their electric groups but are embarking on an acoustic piano duet format (Bob James fronts Fourplay while Keiko Matsui performs under her own name).

While showing great sensibility and courage to challenge and re-create their music in such an intimate fashion, Bob and Keiko are keeping with the redefining, never-ending experience that is synonymous with the jazz tradition. Like the great duo piano collaboration in the late 70's with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock or Duke Ellington's duets with Count Basie before them, jazz piano has a growing history of great duo projects. Lest we forget, the Grammy winning self-introspective duo work of Bob Evans ('Conversation's with Myself') during the early sixties. What makes the Matsui / James duo so special is the fact the music will be performed on one piano and bench, not in the double piano context of the aforementioned projects.

Four-hand piano performance brings strategic complexities to the pianist used to the whole 88-note range. For instance, articulating the notes while sharing half of the bench with another musician let alone, the foot pedals and dampers. However, the math is easy, two minds, four hands and one piano! Perhaps, it is almost impossible to understand the challenge of adapting one's technique to allow for another person playing the same instrument at the same time, without being a pianist. In effect, the two performers must "breathe" as one to let the music speak naturally.

The pacing of the program is important because the solo and (bass/treble) voice transitions must be smooth. The choreography of the artists will come into play as they cross their arms and hands while trying to avoid collisions, not to mention the foot pedals! In the background of the concert stage James will have three of his paintings hanging directly behind the stage. Bob is an impressive paint artist and has a feature in the last Matsui release ('Whisper from the Mirror'). This display is an added treat for the "live" audience. During the concert, there will be some open solo sections in which Bob will sit in a black chair when Keiko solos and Keiko will sit in a white chair during Bob's solo exploits. You can be assured that this duo will have a large pallet of entertaining and theatrical surprises for the audience. This added choreographic element will only enhance or add to the aural experience we can expect from such sensitive artist. Don't be surprised when you encounter these artists pushing the edge creatively and hold on to your seat! Music is serious business and even though we are treated to a great musical melding of the mind(s), this duo delivers a one-two punch. There is no doubt, these artist are serious about their art and craft and love their fans.

If your wondering how two jazz pianist reach a point of experimentation where they work in a duet context usually reserved for classical literature, (Mozart, Bach, Scarlatti, Debussy) you might be surprised to find the answer. This would have to be answered by the artist doing the performance to give us a proper illustration of what we could expect to see during a concert in this medium. The inception of the four-hand project began with an offer from Bob to Keiko when he was planning the concepts of his solo/duet piano works 'Dancing on the Water'. The tune "Ever After" was the product of Bob's commission or offer to Keiko where he asked her to try to create a challenging four-hand composition for the album. James explained in an interview with June Sato (Keiko Matsui's Japanese fan site) that he hoped Keiko would be challenged to create something after working with him in the four hand piano style. In regards to the tune "Ever After," James mentioned what a surprise and gorgeous composition the piece turned out while recording. "Even though I encouraged her, at first she was unsure about whether she could adapt to this way of composing. But I was confident she would enjoy the challenge and I'm so flattered and proud that she would be inspired to write such a beautiful piece for me to play with her on her new album ('Whisper from the Mirror' 2000). Now I'm looking forward to playing it in live performance later this year." Bob James also recalled he has been an admirer of Keiko Matsui's music since he first heard it and liked the difference in style she brought to the piano and keyboards.

When asked about the performance of "Ever After" Keiko explains "I wrote down most of the notes of the song like a classical piece but left some blank spots for improvisation". There were no overdubs or multiple instruments during the session. Keiko explains, "At the beginning of the piece I took the higher tones, Bob took the lower. Then at one point he left the bench and I took a solo, then I got up and he took a solo. For the last chorus I came back and we resumed the song as we did from the start." It was an exciting experience working with him she said of the experience. The original Bob James album title 'Alone Together' was scraped for the title 'Dancing on the Water' which started out as a solo piano project and soon evolved into an opportunity to work with other pianist which James rarely has the chance to explore. The title is relative to the first release by Matsui as a solo artist entitled 'A Drop of Water' which is an apt title however, given her current success, could be called a waterfall in respect to the "water" correlation.

Both artists are well aware of their classical / European influences in composition and literature. Bob James (otherwise known as the Professor) has applied many great classical arranging techniques to his solo work as musical director with Sarah Vaughn and releases of the late Grover Washington Jr. He has also performed a piano tribute to the work of Baroque master Rameau who was a contemporary of Handel and Bach. The multi piano works of Scarlatti and Bach have also been explored in earlier releases. Keiko Matsui has recently worked on the tribute releases 'Tribal Mozart' and 'Tribal Schubert' with her husband Kazu's project recordings, which feature him on the Japanese shakuhachi flute. Her latest release appropriately titled 'The Piano' will feature 7 solo piano cuts and 3 that feature her in a duet with her self via the magic of DAT.

Mrs. Matsui also has a DVD & VHS release of her concert taping at the BET Jazz studios last summer. This collection features Keiko's recent concert selections with her electric band. She does perform on acoustic piano but the keyboard is featured in this collection. If you are a fan of a rhythm section with a soprano horn, check this groove heavy music out right away! Keiko and Kazu have great dedication to their music. While Kazu is a master of the traditional shakuhachi, he also is a master in the art of studio production. Kazu also has a great ear for live music production as I witnessed during a sound check during an Atlanta, Georgia concert with her band. Mr. Matsui will also take care of the "live mix" on the four hand piano tour. The New Year has proved very busy and fruitful for the Matsui family.

The Japanese tour is a great "homecoming" for the whole family since friends; relatives and even old music teachers will greet them. Bob James has a deep appreciation of Asian culture and seems to thrive off the vibe of the attentive audiences in Japan. There are 8 performances scheduled for Japan and 1 date in Puerto Rico and 2 U.S. dates so far. A live web-cast of the performance will take place on Friday 19th at 7:00 PM JST with NTT Communications. Check the link on the keikomatsui.com or bobjames.com the web for more details about the streaming video performance. Some of the tunes that will be performed will include "Ever After", "Westchester Lady", "Altair & Vega" and "Duo Oto Subito" and an eclectic mix of classical music literature and new four-hand arrangements of their electric band compositions.

Jazz fans can call your local concert halls and request the "four-hand" piano concert via Ted Kurland booking agency which is listed on the Keiko Matsui site. You can also inquire with your local and web jazz stations to support these two great artists and the beautiful music they are creating. Hopefully, the shows will be recorded and a CD and video will be available to document this very rare musical event. I have no doubt this collaboration will end in a Grammy nomination for best duo/group instrumental performance and even more success to both artist in their solo and group efforts.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Keiko Matsui & Bob James
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