Cover Story

Keiko Matsui soars with winds of change
By Chris Campbell

Keiko Matsui is an artist whose sonic compositions are a reminder of music's ability to travel while remaining simultaneously still. The pianist’s music evokes fractal images of nature (waterfalls, sunrises, sunsets and quiet storms) suggesting that to be immersed in her music is to be mentally fused and in tune with nature itself in a beautiful aural and visceral kaleidoscope that has entranced jazz listeners for more than 20 years. This holiday season, she brings her kind spirit and elegant style to the Dave Koz & Friends A Smooth Jazz Christmas tour. She’s thrilled to join Dave and his “friends” Jeff Golub and South African guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Butler for this 19-date whirlwind of holiday merriment and magic.

While it's easy to be consumed by her body of work, including a prolific 29 solo albums and numerous collaborations, her talent has always been complemented by an almost mystical, protective veneer. It's been entertaining to hum along with her hits such as “Forever, Forever,” “A Drop of Water” and “Mystic Dance,” as she prodigiously displays her technical wizardry with an almost assembly line precision––wind her up and watch her work those keys.

But with the recent release of Moyo, Matsui, who has been busy touring the globe promoting the CD all summer, has entered a new stage of self-discovery and development, showing more of herself and adding another dimension to her music evolution. And the best part? She's having fun.

“My band was touring in Eastern Europe, and it was painfully cold (-28 degrees),” she said, recounting a recent concert stop in Russia. “We were traveling by train, and the train rides were long, some totaling 18 hours in duration. Oftentimes, the promoters of my concerts are vodka companies who give the band and me complimentary vodka samples. So I kept a vodka bottle with me from my dressing room and decided to drink several shots of vodka, red wine and champagne when it got cold on the train. I had never tried vodka before, but I grew to like it. I'm an expert now!” she enthused playfully.

Matsui keeps the mood light amid a heavy tour and travel schedule. She logs numerous frequent flyer miles commuting between her native Japan and California every 10 days, doing shows, producing in the studio or collaborating with other artists. She credits her two teenage daughters and her adoption of Catalina, California, as a second home as a way of keeping her grounded.

“I began spending time there (Catalina) 10 years ago with my daughters when they were really young,” she said. “We love swimming and lying on the beach to get a good suntan. The morning sunrise is so beautiful. It inspires me to write music when I'm in those types of settings, because I feel as if I'm getting in touch with nature. Catalina is a wonderful place to relax to take the edge off all the jetlag I experience.”
Matsui was able to extend her visit in Avalon after her performance there in October during the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival. In addition to her incredible performance at the Avalon Casino ballroom, Matsui found time to enjoy the waterfront view while dining at Steve’s Steakhouse and to experience the festival’s after-parties at Descanso Beach.

Matusi's ascension to the top tier of the smooth jazz artist pantheon is almost ironic in the sense that she would have never become a pianist if her mother had had her way. Her mother––a professional traditional Japanese dancer––looked to groom Matsui to embrace interpretive dance.
“My mom wanted me to try dance first, but I didn't show enough interest in it, so she started taking me to piano lessons, which I enjoyed,” she recalled. “I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. In Japanese culture, when someone embarks on something before age 6, they are obligated to continue doing that forever. I loved to practice, but I never thought I would be a professional musician. I've never had the desire to dance, although when I had my vodka in Eastern Europe, I was tempted.”
The field of dance's loss has been smooth jazz's gain. Over the course of her career, Matsui has been able to share the stage with an enviable collection of leaders of the smooth jazz sound. A fond memory for Matsui was performing simultaneously with Bob James even though “there was only one piano and one chair for the music set,” she recalled. Legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela became an important collaborator and mentor for Matsui. And while she looks up to Gerald Albright as a “big-brother figure,” she credits Koz for introducing her to the joy of performing festive Christmas tunes.
Though her career had enjoyed a broad upward arc, the winds of change blew Matsui's way when she divorced longtime husband and musician, Kazu Matsui, then shortly thereafter replaced her longtime manager with a new one. The experience would have a profound impact on her as she looked to her music as a form of artistic catharsis.**

**The complete story can be found in the December edition of Smooth Jazz NewsSubscribe today.   Receive 11 editions of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (February through December), for $35. 
For more information on Matsui, including her tour schedule, visit

On Tour

Various dates through Dec. 20, 2008
Dave Koz & Friends A Smooth Jazz Christmas tour
Various venues throughout the United States

Jan. 17-24, 2010
The Fifth Annual Smooth Jazz-themed Cruise with Dave Koz & Friends featuring Wayman Tisdale

Full-ship charter to the Caribbean
Aboard Holland America’s ms Westerdam
Embarkation/Debarkation: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Ports of Call: Grand Turk, St. Thomas, St. Barth's and Half Moon Cay
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