It's a new year, record label, management, and hairstyle for Keiko Matsui, but her first album since 2007's Moyo (Shout Factory!) finds the Japanese pianist still in fine form. The Road... isn't as radical a shift in direction as Moyo was, as Matsui added African influences to her unique melding of musical styles, but it is a worthy continuation of the journey she began four years ago.
"Secret Pond" is another entry in the stately and quiet gracefulness of Matsui's tranquil playing. Dazzling with technique is not her way, nor is overstaying her welcome. An economical musician, Matsui has never deviated from her grand design in getting in and out under five minutes per song, avoiding the traps of jazz cliché, such as unnecessarily bombastic soloing and over-length. Matsui is quietly determined to pay no mind to whatever the prevailing trend is, and beats her own path wherever it takes her, instead of following the leader.
"Bohemian Concerto" is a odd mash-up of conflicting genres, with its string section arrangement by Gary Stockdale duking it out with a pumping drum-and-bass rhythm section by MB Gordy and Eric Baines. Frank Marocco's accordion and Albert De Almar's flamenco guitar bob and weave, while Matsui's elegant piano drives the groove hard for five minutes of fun-filled funkiness. In the planning stages, "Bohemian Concerto" must have appeared a bit audacious, and it is; it's a credit to Matsui's maturation as a producer that she can pull it off so beautifully.
While keyboards will always be at the core of Matsui's albums, guitars are all over this recording and, when pushed front and center, James Hara's understated solos on "Embrace & Surrender" result in an opening up of the musical space. Matsui has always played well with others, but here it sounds more like a band meshing together rather than a series of talented sidemen dropping by to do their thing.
There's both continuity to Matsui's past, with the return of Stockdale, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and Derek Nakamoto's arrangements/synthesizers, and a new energy infused by saxophonist Kirk Whalum. On Moyo, Matsui drew inspiration from her collaboration with Hugh Masekela; here, she finds a kindred musical spirit with Richard Bona, who co-produces three tunes with Matsui ("Falcon's Wing," "Nguea Wonja" and "Touching Peace"), and shares the writing credit on "Nguea Wonja" and "Touching Peace." The Cameroonian bassist/vocalist's versatility has brought the best out of artists such as Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, and "Nguea Wonja" advances Matsui's dramatic shift, from ornate soundscapes with classical overtones, to a more rhythmic and organic sound.
Across the continuum of Matsui's 22 albums, she has made it all but impossible to neatly slot her into any of the typical categories in the jazz supermarket. The highest praise that can be given to The Road... is how it pulls off the neat trick of both updating the Keiko Matsui catalog with another superlative entry, while moving forward without leaving a thing behind.
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