Keiko Matsui: Heart & Soul
“ To me, music is like a prayer, it is a very spiritual thing. I think that music has a magic power. I think music is something that the universe or God gave us to combine together. ”
Although she has sold 1.2 million units in the U.S. alone and has sold-out appearances at concert halls across the world, there is much more to Keiko Matsui. She is wholly centered in her spiritual beliefs and they are infused into her compositions; and as if that weren't enough, grapes and rice are cultivated to her music. She is an innovator and prodigious talent of such magnitude that cannot be fully understood until you see her perform her melodious revelries live.
I recently caught up with Keiko Matsui at Yoshi's in Oakland, California. Apart from taking in a breathtaking performance, I was able to discuss Moyo: Heart & Soul (Shout Factory, 2007), and her recent expedition to South Africa.
All About Jazz: You began playing the piano at the age of five when your mother enrolled you in piano lessons. I know that it is a Japanese tradition for parents to enroll their children at the age of five in music lessons, in the hope that they may continue to pursue it as they mature. Do you feel that this has impacted the longevity of your career?
Keiko Matsui: You mean making the decision?
AAJ: Yes, the decision to play and the decision to continue it.
KM: I'm not too sure. At that time my mother wanted me to take dance lessons and I didn't show an interest in dance, because I was interested in music, so that is why I studied.
AAJ: You started out as a classical pianist.
KM: Yes, and I never thought about becoming a professional or anything. I just really liked to practice and go to school.
AAJ: Well many of us are so glad that you did Jazz has influenced all genres of music, really. Coming from a classical background, what led you to jazz? I know some of your early influences were Stevie Wonder, Rachmaninov, Maurice Jarre and Chick Corea.
KM: Early on I started listening to different types of musicsoundtracks, jazz, classical and pop. I took some private lessons and started to write small compositions. At some point it just became very natural for me to express myself through my music, almost like writing in a diary.
AAJ: I think that makes music all the more fascinating. You have a very spiritual view of the process of composing. What does that mean to you? How does spirituality play a role in the composing of your music?
KM: To me, music is like a prayer, it is a very spiritual thing. I think that music has a magic power. I think music is something that the universe or God gave us to combine together. Beyond a culture, beyond the history of your country, you can reconnect with the music, so those spiritual elements are important to me for my music.
AAJ: The moon is referred to a lot in your songs through the titles, so again, the references to spirituality are everywhere in your music.
KM: Yes, I like the moon and I feel a strong spiritual connection.
AAJ: Speaking of spiritual connections, you went to Africa to record Moya: Heart & Soul. Why, at this time, did you choose to go to South Africa? Were you inspired?
KM: I decided to go to Africa because for this project it was the first time that I produced an album on my own. We have played in South Africa many times, and I know many people there, and wonderful musicians are there so I decided to go there first at the end of May 2006 and spend some time writing songs.
AAJ: A lot of people say that visiting Africa is a spiritual experience and that it is one that is life-altering, completely transforming. Do you feel that way?
KM: I spent about three weeks there during this last trip, and I did so so that I could really see their culture and feel what the people lived. Sometimes I would take off into the countryside to spend time alone in the beautiful nature, and I was very inspired by it.
AAJ: The media unfailing focuses on the negative aspects of Africa and rightly so to a certain extent given the conditions and issues that so many are facing daily. However, Africa has a vast culture that we do not emphasize nearly enough. Through this album it is evident that you were able to experience the beauty and humanity of South Africa.
KM: There are so many difficult problems but I feel a very pure passion toward music, and when I would play at the concerts, I could feel their energythey were very eager to listen to the music. It was very powerful. They are maybe the most passionate audiences in the world. So of course there are difficult problems but all of these things are thoughts in my mind, and they are reflected in the music, too.
AAJ: I imagine that, with Africa being such a special place, you must really connect with this album.
KM: Yes, I really connect with every song. Each song is an experience.
AAJ: Can you tell me about the story behind the song, "Marula ?
KM: Oh yes, I picked some fruit from an elephant tree. My friend Hugh Masekela, a legend, invited me to his cousin's birthday party. At the party his wife Elinam introduced me to this drink made from a Marula tree which is sometimes called an Elephant Tree. For them, it is a very spiritual tree. It is called an Elephant Tree because elephants sometimes eat the fruit in the wilderness. So, imagining this fruit and the animals led me to compose "Marula.
AAJ: I think it is such a great story how trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, introduced you to the manager of a piano factory so that you could compose.
KM: Yes, I commuted there everyday. It was a very different environment, because in Japan or the United States I would be in the studio with my piano. There were so many pianos and they were all set on the ground. When it got dark, it would get cold. A melody came to me there when I was writing there, a song that I call, "A Great Romance.
AAJ: There are so many innovative things about your music, but I think most importantly it is always so unique. There is nothing really comparable to it. I think it is due partly to your ability to blend the eastern and western cultures.
KM: I hope that people recognize it as good music. Scenery and the spirituality are very important aspects to my music. I hope that, with this album, people will experience romance, adventure or any other of the many elements in my music.
AAJ: I think that the title is very fittingHeart & Soul, as in the heart and soul that you put into your music, but also the heart and soul of Africa. That is the autonomy of art in play.
KM: With this album and the recording process, I made a lot of new friends, and many great musicians and it was a wonderfully warm feeling to be surrounded by my friends, it was exciting. I recorded a song called "Black River one day while I was driving through the countryside and I saw a big bird gliding on the river, and it was very beautiful.
AAJ: Paul Taylor plays on that track. You actually discovered Paul and he has gone on to have a flourishing career. That element of camaraderie must be very rewarding.
KM: He was one of my band members before and he played on my seventh album, so it was like a reunion. The way that he works with me on my music is so special. I hope that people enjoy this album, and come out to see us at a show.
Keiko Matsui, Moyo: Heart & Soul (Shout Factory, 2007)
Keiko Matsui, Walls of Akendora (Narada, 2005)
Keiko Matsui, Summer Selection (Sony/Columbia, 2004)
Keiko Matsui, The Very Best of Keiko Matsui (GRP Records, 2004)
Keiko Matsui, Wildflower (Narada, 2004)
Keiko Matsui, White Owl (Narada, 2003)
Keiko Matsui, Live in Tokyo (Sony/Columbia, 2002)
Keiko Matsui, The Ring (Narada, 2002)
Keiko Matsui, A Gift of Life (Narada, 2001)
Keiko Matsui, The Wind and the Wolf (Pione, 2000)
Keiko Matsui, Keiko Matsui Live (Countdown, 1999)
Keiko Matsui, Full Moon and the Shrine (Countdown, 1998)
Keiko Matsui, A Gift of Hope (Unity, 1997)
Keiko Matsui, Dream Walk (Countdown, 1996)
Keiko Matsui, Sapphire (White Cat, 1995)
Keiko Matsui, Cherry Blossom (White Cat, 1992)
Keiko Matsui, Night Waltz (Sin-Drome Records, 1991)
Keiko Matsui, No Borders (MCA Records, 1990)
Keiko Matsui, Under Northern Lights (MCA Records, 1989)
Keiko Matsui, A Drop of Water (Passport Jazz Records, 1987)
Cosmos, Keiko Project (Canyon Records, 1985)
Cosmos, MUSOU TOSHI (Canyon Records, 1984)
Cosmos, (Canyon Records, 1983)
Cosmos, Bourbonsuite (Canyon Records, 1982)
Cosmos, HYORYU (Toshiba-EMI, 1980-1981)
Courtesy of Keiko Matsui