Keiko Matsui

Thelonious Monk once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Mere words fall quite short in their attempt to describe the articulate and complex language of music. We can try to pigeonhole artists into categories and genres but it is most often an exercise in futility. The junction created by the music of Keiko Matsui is a wonderful case in point.

Keiko began her classical piano training when she was five. She tells us most Japanese children do that. "Even Kazu [her husband and producer] took piano lessons for three months, and quit for baseball." She became equally interested in contemporary jazz, movie sound tracks and pop music. By Junior High she was composing her own music. "Even though my style of music is categorized into jazz right now, classical music has always been a very important and clear influence in my compositions and playing. Jazz and classical can live together without any problems, I think." She admires the compositions of Chopin, Mozart and Rachmaninoff just as well as those of Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Joe Sample. Couple her intermingling of classical and jazz with the fact that she blends East and West musical sensibilities together…If there were an artist that truly represents the idea of jazz fusion, it would be Keiko Matsui.

On her Public Television special, "Keiko Matsui: Light Above The Trees," Keiko opens saying "Music is like prayer. That's why I'm here." The "here" she is referring to is the Itsukushima Shrine in Japan. Near Hiroshima, it has been a spiritual place for Japanese people for more than 1200 years. It is an appropriate locale, given the spiritual way in which she approaches music. Her new album is entitled "Full Moon and the Shrine." Keiko says the origin of the album and television special are based on a song of the same name. "The tune 'Full Moon and the Shrine' was composed for our Public TV special. The opening scene was shot in Japan at the Shinto shrine which stands half in the ocean. We chose the day of shooting at the highest ocean tide on the night of a full moon. The album project was started with this tune so that we carried over the spiritual air from this shrine into other songs. It was not so intentional, but carrying over the qualities of native spirits of Japan may have become the theme for the album. It is almost like air, and might not be so obvious musically. There are many different music styles in the album, including some R&B. But it was not difficult to have the spiritual air from the shrine into even R&B tunes. Music is one form of prayer anyway. That is where all music originally belongs. The differences of cultural backgrounds has never been a problem in our music making."

If Keiko's music defies category, it may be because she is a pretty tough one to assort herself. The stunning visual image of her petite beauty is only a point of departure in describing Keiko Matsui. She gracefully drifts on stage, looks up just long enough to flash this angelic smile, and when she gets behind the keyboards, all of a sudden that delicate flower doesn't seem so demure anymore. She plays with conviction and a raw energy that leaves you saying "Where did that come from?" On the road, she has no trouble relating to the sometimes unruly lot of musicians with whom she shares the stage. Then, there's Keiko the mom. She two daughters, nine year old Maya and year old Mako. She periodically sends us pictures of the girls. We hear, via a Matsui newsletter, what costumes they wore Halloween and that Mako is taking out her "terrible 2's" on her nice sister's homework assignments. Even Keiko's place of residence a bit complex. She has a home in Tokyo and one here in Huntington Beach. "We commute to L.A. almost every month. For example, last year we made 14 round trips between Tokyo and L.A.. Combining all our stays in the U.S., spend about five to six months here. That means our car is parked at the Narita Airport five to six months a year."

It was music that originally brought Keiko to Southern California when she was 18 years old. She was an artist for the Yamaha Music Foundation and they gave her an opportunity to record on a project called "Session III." It was fate that brought Keiko and Kazu together in 1984 when he produced one of her concerts in Tokyo. The two have been married for 12 years and Kazu has produced all nine of her albums. When she performs live, Kazu usually jumps on stage for a couple of numbers.

Since Keiko and Kazu work so closely together, we asked them each what the best and worst things were about their arrangement. Keiko said "No one else can try to make my album become the best album more than he does. Of course sometimes it is difficult to be a wife and an artist at the same time." As for Kazu: "The best thing is that we can be together all the time…Not as a producer and an artist, but as a husband and a wife. The worst thing is, by working with my own wife, realize who I am. So I am still working on my character to be better, and she has already a good character."

Extraordinarily generous in every aspect of her life, Keiko is long on good character. Last May she launched a national tour dedicated to raising awareness and funds for breast cancer prevention and for the Y-Me National Breast Cancer organization. When the "Gift of Hope" tour hit Los Angeles, the House of Blues became the House of Pink for one night. (Pink is the color for breast cancer awareness.) In October she continued her support for the cause, scoring music for the Lifetime channel documentary "Say It, Fight It, Cure It" hosted Rosie O'Donnell. "I have been so fortunate in my life. I can make a living doing what I love to do. I have two great daughters…I wanted to do something for some cause through music. have lost a close friend to this disease. She was very young."

Keiko is the sort of mother any kid would hope to have. She happens to be a gourmet cook and accomplished sailor too. So striking is her beauty, she was photographed by Herb Ritts for an international GAP ad campaign. Her "Dream Walk" album ended up as the third best selling contemporary jazz album of last year. She was the only female artist to even make the chart. How do you classify someone like that?

I first heard the Shakuhachi played by Kazu Matsui in 1978 on the sampler album of Yutaka Yokokura's LOVE LIGHT released from Alfa Records, Tokyo. The album was given to me by a close musician friend of mine. I was fascinated by the exotic sound of the tune called Breath of Night which featured Kazu's bamboo flute, the Shakuhachi.

Kazu has produced more than 60 albums. He has worked with many artists including: David Lindley, Carl Anderson, Greg Walker, Phillip Ingram, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather, Jimbo Akira, Ravi Shankar, Kenny Loggins, Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Danny O'Keefe, Patti Austin, James Ingram, Peter White, Chaka Khan, Philip Bailey, James Honer... and so on.

Now I can see that Kazu aims at a very unique approach using the Shakuhachi's breath time when he produces Keiko's music. Most people are attracted by Keiko's sing-and-talk-like piano melodies.

© Jun Sato