Something quite fascinating is how people have the tendency to categorize. In order to organize this mess of a world, to be able to deal with the chaos and unpredictability humans assign things to boxes: good and evil, healthy and unhealthy, Country music, Metal. Once something has been assigned a category, it rarely gets reclassified. Sometimes it’s quite beneficial, but it can be detrimental too, for instance when people start conforming to the box they’re in, whether they chose to be in there or were put in there by others.
And then there are people like Keiko Matsui. This woman, classical piano wunderkind, became a worldwide star in the world of New Age and later Smooth Jazz, touring the world for 30 years now. This woman made 26 albums before “Journey to the Heart” last year. She now sells 1500 tickets a night in Russia for two weeks straight, a beloved artist at Smooth Jazz nights from the Hollywood Bowl to Java Jazz in Jakarta, Indonesia. But guess what: she keeps growing and innovating, keeps pushing, instead of resting on her laurels and riding this wave into the sunset.
After years of others, mostly men of course, running her life, managers, record labels etc., she has taken control! That album she did last year? Her best one yet, and the most free of all. Produced by none other than Carlitos Del Puerto, son of Cuban bass legend Carlos Del Puerto of Irakere, it’s her first all acoustic project and it’s truly wonderful. She never really was a Smooth Jazz artist to begin with, very few 2 chord R&B jams in her repertoire, but here we have a proper Jazz album, awesome compositions, fantastic playing by a group of great musicians. I’m serious, this is music that would fit in at any real Jazz club in the world and she proved it last week in Napa.
Back in 2000 I did one summer with Keiko and her manager ran the show back then, she would hardly talk to the band. When I joined again in 2013 the situation was much different already. I replaced Eric Baines who was the musical director, so it really was the first time she took on that role, and slowly but surely she realized that she could easily do it! I mean, after almost 30 years of doing your music, you know what you want! Communication across languages can be hard, and explaining feeling in music even harder, but between a group of excellent musicians (JP Mourao, Jackiem Joyner, Dave Karasony) who truly repected her and my above average language skills, we got there. She still had a “Pop”/Classical concept of her show, with strict arrangements and solos that were almost verbatim every night. Doing “Journey to the Heart”, and then touring on it with the Carlitos and Jimmy Branly forced her to adopt more of a true Jazz flow: those guys are UNSTOPPABLE, they cannot be put in a box. They will never play the same thing twice. I heard some of the live recordings and they went for it every time, actually a little too much for Keiko’s fans I’m afraid. Of course Carlitos is the hottest bass player in the world right now, so when Chick Corea called, and Barbra Streisand and Bob James, he moved on and combined with the preference of promoters and fans for the electric band, we got the call again.
Fast forward to last week, when we did 4 nights, two shows a night, at the brand new Blue Note in Napa, CA. I’m not exaggerating when I say all 8 shows where in my top 25 favorite gigs of my life. Keiko was simply outstanding and we played like a real band; I get tears in my eyes again thinking about it, as happened literally every night at some point. The stage is small there, and with the incredible CF6 that Yamaha brought especially for Keiko, we were set up super tight, which is ideal actually for playing Jazz. Keiko played some truly amazing solos, really blew my mind how free and creative, how beautiful, playful and exciting. She improvised stuff on songs I had never heard even a slight variation on. And we were right with her, at all times; it’s incredible what happens when a band trusts itself, when a soloist feels so comfortable. JP went from beautiful whisper quiet Brazilian flavors to screaming rock, rhythmical explorations to surf…. our dynamics as band were incredible, we played so softly a few times, without losing any intensity it shocked me.
Honestly, Keiko became a true Jazz pianist this week. She’s been trying to book shows in Western Europe, but her association with Smooth Jazz has held her back, even though she was always more of a New Age/Pop/Classical pianist. Now, in my opinion, she could and should get booked at any real Jazz club in the world, even with the electric band. It’s beyond inspiring to see a woman of her stature make such a bold and dramatic move, to refuse to stay in a box and boldly go…….. feeling beyond blessed to be able to witness it……