Keiko Matsui Interview
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.
Check out more great interviews here!
Keiko Matsui Biography
Internationally Acclaimed Pianist, Composer & Humanitarian Keiko Matsui Creates Enchanting Global Sonic Tapestry On New Shanachie Recording
New CD Unites Matsui with All-Star Line Up Including Gretchen Parlato, Marcus Miller, Kirk Whalum, Robben Ford & Kyle Eastwood
“There is a strong spiritual quality Keiko Matsui brings to all of her creative projects.”- The Los Angeles Times
Acclaimed pianist, composer and humanitarian Keiko Matsui’s transcendent and haunting melodies have long sought to build bridges. Her sonic cultural exchange has reached the hearts and minds of fans throughout the world and has allowed the pianist to work alongside icons Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Hugh Masekela and Bob James.
“I would like my music to be a conduit for peace, kindness, love and light,” shares the petite, soft-spoken, yet commanding pianist. She adds, “My recording Echo is my attempt to capture all of these elements into the vibration of sound.” On February 22, 2019 Keiko Matsui will release her 28th recording as leader, Echo, which she co-produced with Grammy nominated producer Bud Harner.
A master storyteller, Matsui crafts exquisite compositions replete with lush harmonies and global rhythms to create timeless musical anthems. Like iconic musicians Miles Davis and Shirley Horn, Keiko is also a master at utilizing space in her music to create a backdrop of drama, tension and sheer beauty.
Keiko’s most inspired work yet, Echo features numerous special guests including bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Robben Ford and bassist (and son of Clint Eastwood) Kyle Eastwood. The all-star line up also showcases premiere recording musicians drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist, Jimmy Johnson and guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. and percussionist Luis Conte, as well as Keiko’s top notch touring band, Jimmy Branly, JP Mourão and Rico Belled. …
“While composing the songs on Echo, I had a feeling of gratitude and a sense that there were infinite possibilities,” reflects Keiko Matsui. “This music is close to my heart because it is a celebration of the joy of the imagination, the strength of courage and the endurance of faith. It is about romance and a reminder to honor all living things.”
There is a grace and spirituality about Keiko that permeates her music and very essence. Listening to Echo, you feel as if you are transported on a journey as the music unfolds like ten sweeping movements in a rapturous suite. The prolific Matsui composed 100 motifs for the recording that eventually were narrowed down to the songs featured on the CD.
Echo ceremoniously opens with a trippy drum and bass that catapults into Matsui’s reggae-tinged “Unshakeable.” Backed by nonet, with a blazing horn section, Keiko’s punctuated dancing lines add fuel to this exhilarating number. The intriguing “Moon Over Gotham” shines light on Keiko’s unrivaled ability to create delightfully memorable melodies. This swinger features a flugelhorn solo from Wayne Burgeron. Bass extraordinaire Marcus Miller shares the spotlight with Keiko on the CD’s title track. Miller was featured on Keiko’s 2013 recording Soul Quest on her anthem for global warming “Antarctica.” Keiko admits to being a long time Marcus Miller fan.
“I love his playing and his performance on “Echo” is a reflection of his personality and divine musicality,” shares the pianist. The song also features a gorgeous solo from guitarist Ramon Stagnaro. Joined by a ten-piece ensemble Keiko Matsui’s effortlessly orchestrates the triumphant and climatic “Esprit,” which showcases tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum. The duo previously recorded together on Keiko’s 2011 CD The Road… “I feel Kirk and I share the same mission, which is to dedicate our music to the unification of all people on this earth.
We have been good friends for a long time and I respect both his spiritual and musical approach.” Keiko’s “Marlin Club Blues” has a flare reminiscent to Joe Zawinul’s classic “Birdland” and in addition to Keiko’s own keys features Randy Waldman Jr. on Hammond B-3. The tune is the first blues Keiko has penned and also showcases guitarist Robben Ford, who conjures up a rollicking solo for the occasion. Keiko shares, “I love Robben’s sound and solo on ‘Marlin Club Blues.’ He has a way of playing that beautifully balances silence and soulfulness.”
Echo also features Keiko Matsui’s tender “Invisible Rain,” which ebbs and flows with sweeping melodic lines that swell with emotion. The pianist invites vocalist Gretchen Parlato to join her on the album’s first single “Spirit Dance.” “After the melody came to me with a Brazilian flavor, I immediately thought of Gretchen, who I had met on a cruise a few years ago,” says Keiko. “I was familiar with her use of voice as percussion, and the chorus section of this song seemed really made for her.
It was a fun reunion and she couldn’t have been nicer to work with. “Now Is the Moment” is a tantalizing number that showcases Keiko’s unrivaled ability to create moody and captivating soundscapes while the joyous, percussive and Latin inspired “Viva Life” displays Keiko and the band having some fun as they show off their rhythmic elasticity and tight-knit interplay.
Echo comes to a fitting finale with “Return To Eternity,” which highlights Keiko’s agile and always tasteful touch and features bassist Kyle Eastwood. “I had been aware of Kyle’s work as an acoustic bassist and his beautiful soundtrack work with his father Clint Eastwood. When the melody for ‘Return To Eternity’ came to me, I immediately imagined him playing the acoustic bass on the song.”
Keiko Matsui took her first piano lesson at five and she made her US recording debut in 1987 with the recording A Drop of Water. Under Northern Lights followed in 1989 and her subsequent albums of note include No Borders (1990), Night Waltz (1991), Cherry Blossom (1992), Doll (1994), Sapphire (1995) and Dream Walk (1996), which remained on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart for over 15 months and further cemented her reputation as a force to be reckoned with.
In 1997, she launched a tour dedicated to raising awareness of breast cancer, and released a four-song CD entitled A Gift of Hope that benefited the Y-Me Breast Cancer Organization. Her music was prominently featured in Say It, Fight It, Cure It, a Lifetime special profiling several courageous women battling breast cancer. “My fans come from all backgrounds and I have been approached by various foundations to join in their efforts. When I hear of a cause that resonates with me that I can dedicate my music to, then I am always willing.
It is my way to show gratitude and give back,” states Keiko. In 1999, the pianist performed at “A Golden Moment,” a skating concert featuring Olympic figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Ekaterina Gordeeva, and Katarina Witt, which benefited the Susan G. Komen Foundation. 1998 saw the release of her album Full Moon And The Shrine, which was accompanied by the acclaimed PBS-TV special Keiko Matsui: Light Above The Trees.
In 2000, the special earned Keiko a National Smooth Jazz Award for “Best Long-Form Video Achievement” and she was honored with an award for “Best Female Artist.” She claimed the award again in 2001. In 2002, she released the poignant recording, The Ring, which was meant to communicate a message of peace, compassion, and humanity to listeners around the world.
Keiko Matsui’s CD Deep Blue (2001) topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts for three consecutive weeks. She is the first Japanese artist to achieve this honor. In 2003 she enjoyed success with her recording The Piano, which featured reinventions of some of her most loved original works. In 2004 the title track of Keiko’s Wildflower was used to support the United Nations World Food Programme’s efforts in Africa.
“I decided I wanted to support the WFP after learning about the tremendous problems in Africa and how humanitarian assistance can change people’s lives for the better,” shares the activist. Keiko has also collaborated with Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M) in numerous charity concerts. In addition, proceeds from her 2001 mini-CD, A Gift of Life, went to The National Donor Program and Marrow Foundation in support of A3M.
In December 2009, the highly sought-after pianist was asked to put together a Christmas show at the Blue Note club in Tokyo, which was a major success and in November 2010 she made her highly anticipated debut at the Blue Note in NY, which was sold out. In 2011 Keiko recorded with fellow pianist Bob James on a four-hand piano project called Altair & Vega. Keiko’s depth as a composer has also allowed her to contribute music to soundtracks in Japan, the U.S. and Russia.
Keiko also released her critically heralded Billboard Top 5 recording The Road… which featured Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona and saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Jackiem Joyner among others. In 2013, Keiko Matsui celebrated the release of her critically lauded album Soul Quest, which is the musical inspiration behind Live in Toyko. The same year she was also an invited guest in Istanbul for International Jazz Day alongside luminaries Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. 2016 saw the release of Journey To The Heart, which was Keiko’s first acoustic project and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Charts.
Echo further cements Keiko Matsui’s place as one of the most dynamic and important voices in instrumental music. She concludes, “My sole desire is to write songs that create a feeling of oneness. This music is a reflection of my thoughts and life and right now, I am drawing my road towards happiness and truly learning about what it means to be happy.” May Keiko Matsui’s Echo lead you to your happy place.
Street Date: February 22, 2019