Bob James / Keiko Matsui: Altair & Vega (2011)
Altair and Vega are two stars that pass each other once a year, but it took 11 years for James and Matsui to link up and fully realize what began with "Ever After," their first collaboration with piano for four hands on Matsui's Whisper From the Mirror (Narada, 2000). A year later, Matsui joined James for two tracks on his underrated Dancing On the Water (Warner Brothers, 2001). After a decade, the two mainstays of smooth jazz reunited for a record highly unlikely to receive much airplay by any smooth jazz radio station.
The interplay between the two is joyful and at times dazzling. James' "Divertimento," with its apt subtitle, not only allows "The Professor and the Student" to show off their considerable chops, it's playful fun. Things get a bit more serious on Matsui's "Frozen Lake," and the grandiose "The Forever Variations" is stately without being stiff or overly solemn. James and Matsui are not trying to set the music world on its ear as much as they are just coming together to jam.
To the extent this is a jazz record, the playing is never less than impressive, as the pianists' pairing inspires them to greater heights than those they occasionally settle for. Whether Altair & Vega qualifies as light classical music or granola-free New Age is a subjective judgment. What is beyond question is how much effort has to go into the four-hands/one piano approach. This is harder than it looks folks, and one need go no further than the companion DVD for proofa live concert filmed at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh last year.
So why didn't Altair & Vega hit? Perhaps it not being remotely smooth jazz confused the pianists' usual audience. Perhaps the surnames of James and Matsui didn't catch the interest of more traditional audiences who associate the duo with smooth jazz. Either way, it's not too late for both audiences to tune into this terrific collaboration.
Track Listing: CD: Altair & Vega; Frozen Lake; Divertimento (The Professor & The Student); Midnight Stone; Invisible Wing; The Forever Variations; Bach Chorale from Cantata BWV 147. DVD: Divertimento (The Professor & The Student); Frozen Lake; Trees; Duo Oto Subito; The Touch of Your Lips; Forever Variations.
Personnel: Bob James: piano (lower part), Yamaha AvantGrand digital piano (2); Keiko Matsui: piano (upper part).
Record Label: E OneEntertainment