By: Jenifer Dravilas
Just finishing some concerts in South Africa at the end of Sept. 2004, I was finally able to catch up by phone with the globe-trotting, indefatigable new age keyboardist and composer Keiko Matsui who was at home in Tokyo for a brief stint before embarking on the next leg of her world tour to support her latest CD, “Wildflower.”
JD: Hi Keiko! Nice to meet you finally. So, you’re home from performing in South Africa. How was it?
Keiko: It was very nice. We spent 5 days in South Africa. One show was a private concert and another show was for a festival with 15,000 people attending. We were the headliners of the festival and the South African audience was very enthusiastic. And unbeknownst to me the promoter had secretly prepared fireworks during the end of my performance. It was a great surprise to me.When I heard the first fireworks go off I thought a monitor on stage had accidentally become unplugged. And as the last tune was building up to a climax I could suddenly see the fireworks being displayed on the big screen beside the stage.
They were able to display my hands on the keyboard playing over the fireworks. It was very dramatic. We were able to videotape this performance too.
JD: How would you describe the South African audiences?
Keiko: They are amazingly musical people. Without even knowing some of my songs, they are able to hear just a chorus or two and immediately begin to hum along as though they knew the melody well. And they appreciated the music so much. During the concert I could hear them chanting “Keiko Matsui” over and over.
JD: That’s great. So where all have you performed and where are you going to perform during this world tour?
Keiko: We’re going everywhere. Bermuda, U.S., Japan, Finland, Turkey, Lithuania, and Latvia are just some of the places. Latvia is a very interesting place. Lots of musical history including both classical music and jazz. Elements of those musical styles you can find in my music. I also especially enjoyed the autograph and photo sessions after the show in Latvia. The fans are very enthusiastic and nice. We will also be performing in
Kiev. Interestingly, they’ve managed to find many pirated versions of Keiko’s music.
JD: Some people would describe your music as Smooth Jazz. Do you agree? How would you describe your music? Do you incorporate different musical styles into your music?
Keiko: Smooth Jazz is difficult to define. I hope some tunes on each album of mine will be played by this (Smooth Jazz) radio station format. I really hope so. But the style of music differs from tune to tune on my albums. Some tunes are more R&B and other tunes are more Classical, Jazz or Rock. Many of the tunes have more than 2 or 3 different elements of style. But when we compose tunes we do not think too much about the style.
JD: I would say you are more of a Global World musician. Do you agree?
Keiko: I feel music serves as a soul connection. Even people from around the world with different backgrounds can feel and understand Keiko’s music. I feel music can serve the purpose of connecting the soul to its roots.
JD: Any place you’ve not performed yet where you’d like to perform one day?
Keiko: We love the African audiences, but everywhere there are so many music fans. Please understand that my fans are not so much the typical “Jazz” fans. Their minds are really open wide. I do not have any one particular place in the world where I prefer to play. I want to play where people are waiting to hear my music, but at the same time, I want to play for people who have never heard my music. I want to play for human beings, but at the same time, I love playing alone to the moon that I see through the windows.
JD: How did you learn to improvise solos on the piano?
Keiko: I started listening to jazz when I was in Junior High school. My favorites were Joe Sample, Keith Jarret and Chic Korea. I started improvising about that time. But I listened to lots of classical piano tunes too. Mozart and Rachmaninov were my favorites. I never divided Jazz and Classic music in my mind. I liked good music that had a good melody.I like music that has a sincerity and soul. I like music that heals and encourages people’s minds. I like music from which we can feel stories, histories and different cultures.
JD: What advice would you give to up and coming jazz pianists/musicians?
Keiko: Having a love toward music is the most important thing. Please do not try to control music from a technical aspect and theories or styles. If people can tell that you love music when they hear you playing, that is the most important thing. Do not be too ambitious. First just be happy with music.
JD: Tell me what you are feeling when you are playing or composing your music.
Keiko: When I’m playing or composing, I feel I am communicating with the Universe. There is a certain place I can reach that touches spiritual music. You could almost call it Mystic.
JD: Tell me about your process of composing music.
Keiko: Well, I like to compose during the nighttime – when everyone is asleep in the house. I need absolute quiet in order to concentrate. I like to sit in front of the piano and just sit in silence and listen and concentrate. I am waiting to hear something. And if I hear a melody in my head, I then
write it down.But sometimes I hear a melody in my dreams. If I am lucky enough to wake up and still hear the melody I will write it down and compose later.
JD: What’s your attitude towards the melody. Is it important to you? For some musicians, the melody isn’t as important as the intricate chord changes.
Keiko: For me, the melody is extremely important. That’s my background. Back in my musical student era I listened to a lot of classical music and jazz standards. They both utilize strong melodies that stand the test of time and live forever. So I also compose with the same respect for a strong melody line.
JD: And what are the other parts of the composing process for you?
Keiko: Well after composing the melody line, I then like to build up the tune, composing everything on the piano. I will then often work with arrangers, usually Japanese arrangers, working on the rhythm, etc. We exchange ideas and sometimes we’ll change direction completely. We may even add in completely new parts to the tune I’ve composed.The next step is pre-production. We’ll either put down everything on a computer first or we may even record it right in the studio. It just depends on the tune. And towards the middle or close to the end of the process we’ll add in the additional arrangements. As you see, the composing process has many theatrical elements – just like adding in special stage scenery.
JD: Were you pleased with the results of your latest CD, “Wildflower” and will you be making another CD soon?
Keiko: Yes, I was very happy with “Wildflower.” I’m in the middle of making another CD right now. I’ve recently finished the composing part. Speaking of “Wildflower” during the recording of it I received an email from the United Nations asking if we could dedicate the title track “Wildflower” to the U.N.’s World Food Program’s “Against Hunger for Africa” campaign. I was very happy to do so. South Africa wanted to do something for the children utilizing my music. I felt a wildflower is beautiful – growing on the earth wild. And if human beings can have the same respect for each other – as the respect for a wildflower – to not destroy each other but rather support each other to grow and thrive. This is my prayer. We live in very difficult times right now. So what can we do? Pray? Play music? I think through both we can put our collective minds together and build up a unified harmony to make the world a better place.
JD: When did you make your first CD and how many have you made?
Keiko: The first one was in 1980. In total, I’ve recorded 18 albums. I very much enjoy recording.
JD: So when can we expect the next Keiko CD to be released?
Keiko: Probably early next year (2005.) As a matter of fact we just decided on the CD’s title last night. I guess it’s all right to tell you. We’re going to call it “Walls of Akendora.” (Pause.) What does this make you think of?
JD: Is it a place? I’m afraid I don’t know it.
Keiko: Good. It is a place name, but it’s not a real place. It’s a special imaginary place – a place that’s unchartered and unknown. The music on “Walls of Akendora” will have a very strong Keiko feel.
JD: I’m looking forward to it! And with which musical artist would you like to perform one day?
JD: Specifically, what is it about Sting’s music that you like?
Keiko: I like that Sting has no borders. His music carries a special depth of elements and emotion. It feels very mystical and spiritual to me. I like his music very much.
JD: Sounds like your own music. I think it would be great if you two collaborated on something. I notice that nature is a big
theme in your song’s titles (e.g., moon, sun, trees, wind, stars, fire, flowers, animals, etc.) What role does nature play when you compose?
Keiko: I feel tunes carry an inspiration from nature. But nature can’t be explained in words. I’m inspired by the nature I observe everywhere – while on tour – or through a drive in the desert – or from what I observe from an airplane. I once composed a song with inspiration from a sailboat excursion we took on our family’s sailboat. We turned off the engine and just let the boat glide. It felt like we were flying on water under the moon. The scenery around us was so beautiful. I remember feeling a melody and wrote it down immediately.
I feel a very special connection to the moon. I feel I may have had a former life on the moon, living there in some special dimension. We once shot a video of a special concert I did on a full moon night one October evening in 1997. It was a beautiful experience. The location was the 1,200-year-old Itsukushima shrine on Hiroshima. We had a large shooting crew assembled from both Japan and the U.S. I played my tune “Full Moon and the Shrine” on a grand piano placed on the stage of the shrine and the complement of the full moon and the high tide was beautiful. This was very special to me. It definitely enhanced the beauty of the full moon and the shrine. The video in the U.S. is called “Light above the Trees.” And I also
feel a strong connection to wolves.
JD: In what direction do you see your music heading in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years?
Keiko: Actually, this I do not know. I do not think too much about the direction I’m heading. If I can just continue playing for people that would be really great. When I get nice letters from fans, sometimes they are sad and nice, and I feel very glad to be a musician. If you checkout my website www.keikomatsui.com, please read the “Your Letters” section for fan letters. However, we do have many letters which we cannot post because they are too deep and personal. But music has healing power.
JD: How did you and your husband/producer Kazu meet? What have you learned from each other musically (or in any other way)? What is Kazu’s approach to producing your music?
Keiko: Kazu and I met through a musical project. A record company had chosen him to be a producer for a live concert of mine. And he has been directing the directions of my music and my music life. We work together like a husband and wife would farm together or fish together. And of course, most importantly, we raise our children together.
JD: Are your two daughters, Maya and Mako, artistically inclined as well, like their mother and father?
Keiko: Yes. My older daughter, Maya, is 16 years old and she very much enjoys dancing. It’s creative, original dancing through a dance program in her school. They have been competing all over Japan. They received a bronze medal for their performance. And the younger one, Mako, is 9 years old and enjoys practicing the piano.
JD: How do you balance the demands of being a wife, mother, and performer?
Keiko: I am very fortunate in that my mother lives with us. She helps a lot with watching the girls. She has dedicated her time to the girls, and the girls enjoy spending time with their grandmother.
JD: They are indeed lucky to get to spend time with their grandmother. I’m sure those are memories they’ll cherish forever. How do you handle being on the road and keeping in touch?
Keiko: We are able to send faxes and especially with the little one, we talk by phone every night when I’m out on tour. The older one is more understanding. She’ll say “work hard and bring me home a souvenir!” However during the summer breaks between school sessions, the girls will sometimes go on the tour with us. In fact, during her first 6 years, Maya, accompanied with a babysitter, would come on tour with us in Japan. She very much enjoyed the music and even liked to help CDs after the shows!
JD: Which of your songs do your daughters like best?
Keiko: They like them all! The little one likes “Forever, Forever” which appears on the CD “Full Moon and the Shrine.” I actually wrote that song because when she was 2 years old she told me “I love you mother, forever, forever.” The older one likes “Across the Sun” which is on my CD “Deep Blue.” The older one has also appeared in a couple of my DVDs. For instance, she’s in “Believer” on the CD “No Borders” – she in the scenery
– crying – near the ocean.
JD: So besides music, what are some of your other interests? How do you like to spend your free time?
Keiko: I enjoy visiting Shinto shrines, praying, cooking – although I’ve been too busy recently to cook and my Mom is really a much faster cook than me. I enjoy going out with my daughters and enjoying the parks or going shopping. We like to find bakeries and have a sweet.
JD: Thank you so much for all your time Keiko. I know our readers will enjoy getting to know you better. Any plans to perform in Chicago in the near future?
Keiko: We’d very much like to – nothing is planned at this time – but please watch for our schedule which posted on my website.
For more information and tour dates for Keiko Matsui, please check out her website, http://www.keikomatsui.com.
Article written by Jenifer Dravilas, jazz vocalist and freelance writer for Chicago Music Guide, https://chicagomusicguide.com