Known for her crossover mix of smooth jazz, fusion, and new age music, Japan's Keiko Matsui is an internationally acclaimed pianist and composer. Emerging in the late '80s, Matsui has issued a stream of albums including 1989's Under Northern Lights, 1995's chart-topping Sapphire, and 2013's Journey to the Heart, that display a grasp of both Western and Eastern musical traditions, as well as her love of nature and spirituality.
Born in 1961, Matsui grew up in Tokyo and took her first piano lesson at the age of five. Influenced by Stevie Wonder and Rachmaninov as well as early fusion masters Maurice Jarre and Chick Corea, Matsui began composing while in junior high but studied children's culture at the Japan Women's University (Nihon Joshidaigaku). She moved to the Yamaha Music Foundation in Tokyo after graduation and formed Cosmos, recording four albums with the new age group. Her first album as a leader, 1987's A Drop of Water, was released in the U.S. two years after the fact on Passport. The LP also featured her touring partner and husband, shakuhachi player Kazu Matsui, and was financed with their honeymoon money. A contract with MCA that year resulted in two albums, Under Northern Lights and No Borders, both of which featured guest spots by artists like saxophonist Eric Marienthal, guitarist Robben Ford, and others.
Matsui moved to the White Cat label in 1992 and started gaining notice on the contemporary jazz charts. Her 1995 album Sapphire hit number one, and its follow-up also reached the Top Ten the following year. Whisper from the Mirror followed in 2000; Deep Blue appeared the next year. The Ring from 2002 recalled the composer's classical background, while 2004's Wildflower flirted with world music. Walls of Akendora appeared in 2005 with a smooth jazz flavor and an updated version of Matsui's early hit "Mountain Shakedown." Moyo, an album that placed Matsui's piano in an orchestral setting, followed in 2007 on the Shout! Factory imprint.
After a world tour and numerous festival appearances, Matsui took some time off, eventually returning with The Road... in 2011 on Shanachie. She produced most of the disc herself -- and received help on some cuts from Richard Bona, Craig Burbridge, and Joe Chicarelli. The nine-tune set showcased Matsui's playing in a variety of settings from trio to octet. Some of her musical guests included Bona, Kirk Whalum, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Jackiem Joyner. That same year she collaborated with Bob James on Altair & Vega on eOne, which featured both pianists simultaneously sharing a single piano. 2013's Soul Quest featured all-new compositions, but its personnel included many old friends. It climbed to number six on the jazz charts and was followed by a two-year world tour that culminated in Live in Tokyo, an audio-visual disc package issued in 2015.
Early the next year, while on retreat on Catalina Island, Matsui began reflecting upon her recent musical directions and commenced writing melodies toward the goal of a simpler, more organic recording. She enlisted the veteran Cuban rhythm section of bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Jimmy Branly. Peruvian guitarist Ramon Stagnero, and Venezuelan percussionist Luis Quintero, harmonicist Gregoire Maret, and a string section also assisted. The completed album, Journey to the Heart, was issued in August, marking her 30th anniversary as a recording artist. Echo followed in 2019 and featured contributions by saxophonist Kirk Whalum, bassists Marcus Miller and Kyle Eastwood, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. ~ John Bush