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Keiko Matsui: Heart & Soul

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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.
Keiko MatsuiMoyo, Swahili for "heart and soul, is an inspirational release from keyboardist Keiko Matsui. It was recorded on location in South Africa with musicians including Gerald Albright, Paul Taylor, Richard Bona, Akira Jimbo and Waldemar Bastos. The album is a melodic work of art, in which she allows the listener into her experiences, those which she chronicles through twelve poignant tracks.

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 music—soundtracks, 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 energy—they 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.

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