Bob James and Keiko Matsui's Altair & Vega is a solo piano album performed by a duo, and for the most part, that means what it sounds like, two jazz pianists seated together at one keyboard playing four-handed parts. On the James-composed title track (which refers to two stars that pass each other only once a year), previously recorded and released on the 2001 James album Dancing on the Water, Matsui takes the upper part of the piano and James the lower part in a piece that sounds more new age than jazz.
For those who like a little mysticism and classical influence in their smooth jazz, Japanese-born composer and keyboardist Keiko Matsui has long been the ticket. She was Billboard's number one Independent Contemporary Jazz Artist in 1997 and is the top New Adult Contemporary female instrumentalist of her time. In the early days (she's up to 14 albums now), Matsui did it with a mix of thunderous film score-like sweeps, elegant and jazzy piano command, and a guest sax solo here and there to score some radio hits. On The Ring, she continues her recent trend of all those same elements and gorgeous melodies without concern for pop airplay considerations.
Keiko Matsui is the Stevie Nicks of contemporary jazz. In her photos, she always appears pale, out of a mist, like a fairy goddess or angel. Her creative and long popular blend of classical piano, aggressive jazz/funk, orchestral grandeur, and sonic elements from her native Japan allows her to create both poignant ballads and more aggressive fusion statements. Over the course of her last few albums, Matsui's Lindsey Buckingham – always at her side, pushing her performance harder and higher – has been seductive saxman Paul Taylor. On this ethereal mind trip, Full Moon and the Shrine (Countdown/Unity), she doesn't let Taylor stray too far.
Released in 2013, Keiko Matsui's funky, groove-centric Soul Quest featured Narada Michael Walden, Marcus Miller, Chuck Loeb, and Kirk Whalum, among others. It placed high on the jazz charts and set her upon a world tour that resulted in 2015's Live in Tokyo. Arriving in 2016, Journey to the Heart marks her 27th album as a leader and her 30th anniversary as a recording artist. It's a much more organic set that places her acoustic piano at the fore. Her collaborators include bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, drummer Jimmy Branley, guitarist Ramon Stagnero, percussionist Luis Quintero, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.
Live In Tokyo leans hard on Soul Quest (Shanachie, 2013), with seven of the 13 tracks coming from that album where Matsui fully embraced her smooth jazz following. The Keiko Matsui Sound formerly represented an East-meets-West hybrid of classical, New Age and jazz with a Japanese flourish provided by ex-husband Kazu Matsui's shakahuchi. That part of sound vanished eight years ago after they divorced. A different sort of soul quest began which took Keiko Matsui to Africa and that lid a creative spark in the brilliantly underrated Moyo.
Keiko Matsui is usually classified as a jazz musician, which tends to mean that she doesn't get very good reviews, since she is reviewed by jazz critics, while her music actually is best described as a hybrid consisting of equal parts pop, jazz, and new age…
Moyo means "heart and soul" in Swahili.Infused with the rhythms she encountered on trips to South Africa over the past few years,this album is Keiko's boldest departure yet.
Fusion/new age keyboard player Keiko Matsui grew up in Tokyo and took her first piano lesson at the age of five. Influenced by Stevie Wonder and Rachmaninov as well as early fusion masters Maurice Jarre and Chick Corea, Matsui began composing while in junior high but studied children's culture at the Japan Women's University (Nihon Joshidaigaku). She moved to the Yamaha Music Foundation in Tokyo after graduation and formed Cosmos, recording four albums with the new age group.
Matsui's major label debut combines everything from chamber like organ effects ("The Ruins of Sonora") to punchy sax driven pop ("Mountain Shakedown") to orchestral film score sweeps ("The Gate") in expanding her palette further beyond Eastern sounds. Poetic, image laden pieces dominate, but her chops as a keyboardist are tested on more exotic solos. It's another all star affair, with Eric Marienthal, Brandon Fields, Robben Ford, Abe Laboriel, Paul Jackson, Jr. and Grant Geissman pushing Matsui into the big leagues of pop jazz. There's even a slight Latin excursion. The vocals this time are handled by Howard Smith and Phyllis St. James.
This stellar work contains the elements of classical music combined with the influences of both Matsui and James thus creating a work that is partially written and partially improvised adding a lovely depth of feeling and intimate connection of artistic expression. The title of this piano duet release, Altair & Vega, refers to a Japanese folkloric tale about two stars in the galaxy that cross paths only once a year. The bonus DVD of a concert the two performed in 2010 in Pittsburgh at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild clearly reveals a shared admiration and respect.