The World of Keiko Matsui

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Artist: Keiko Matsui
Title: Full Moon & the Shrine
Label: Countdown Records 1998


Artist: Keiko Matsui
Title: Whisper from the Mirror
Label: Countdown Records 2000

I first came across Keiko’s music in 1989 when I bought her Under Northern Lights CD. At the time, Keiko was relatively unknown and the music, an MCA production, dwelled between sentimental pop and pop jazz. Her music since then has matured considerably and is still difficult to categorize- a mixture of New Age, contemporary jazz, instrumental etc. Keiko’s husband, Kazu Matsui is the composer of most of the songs and also serves as the producer of all her albums. He is a master of orchestration and plays a number of traditional Japanese instruments including the shakuhachi. With a growing fan base, Keiko’s wonderful piano style has captivated an international audience. For the purpose of this review, I have chosen two of her recordings, which I feel represent her at her very best: Full Moon & The Shrine, and Whisper From The Mirror. Other albums including Dream Walk, Sapphire, Deep Blue and her most recent Wildflower deserve honourable mentions. The production for her music is slick and the album covers always catchy (Keiko is an attractive Japanese lady who is quite photogenic and likable). The Japanese always have a special way with marketing talent. Often they produce catchy and sometimes artificial tunes that play around in your head and refuse to leave. My favourite moments, believe it or not when playing video games during the 80s was actually listening to the ongoing music that accompanies the action; even if the sound is a hackeyed low-bit affair from a basic Nintendo system.

In Full Moon & The Shrine, Keiko’s piano helps illuminate some of the wondrous instrumental settings that Kazu paints in the foreground. The first track, Night Hawk’s Dream contains a sequence that seems to mimic the sound of fluttering wings, and the piano wanders in and out in a dreamy, yet captivating manner. Another song, Spirit in the Corner shifts to a soothing and relaxing R&B style that puts a little energy for a smooth jazz type of feeling. On track four, Southern Crossings, the rhythm takes on a sultry and glamourized affair while the last song, Meadow (my favourite on this album) is slower paced but is simple and rather rustic with just the right amount of sentimentality.

Flash forward a couple of years to Whisper in the Mirror, and the music of Keiko reaches new heights that no longer focuses purely on a sublime piano. One gets the feeling that the music now begins to create new themes and leitmotifs, which allows the listener to follow the logic of its argument. The songs seem to take on a more classical approach- more structured and yet less formulaic. Beyond the Light on track five is the typical Keiko dreamy and pop-like atmosphere one expects from her. Yet from track six onwards, a new level of maturity comes out. In Dimensions, there are elements of New Age mixed with a subjective jazz sensibility. The last number features a piano duet (actually four hands on the same piano!) with jazz legend Bob James, in a rather light-hearted approach to a simple jazz composition that actually is quite enjoyable.

Both albums contain the HDCD feature, a useful one if your player can decode it. The sound is quite good, being just short of the highest audiophile standards. The bass is surprisingly punchy and actually sounds well on my slightly bass-shy Aerius i’s. These two albums are highly recommended. However if one likes to sample a good mix of Keiko, then the Keiko Matsui-Collection is a good album to start with. One final word- do not listen to Keiko’s music and expect serious jazz. Keiko is a serious musician but her music seems always to smile a little upon itself, and the dreamy landscapes that her albums provide, are exactly the perfect balance for someone who may just happen to wander into the world of Keiko Matsui.

Full Moon & The Shrine

Performance- 8.5/10
Recording- 8.5/10

Whisper from the Mirror

Performance- 9/10
Recording- 8.5/10

Reviewer- Jason Liu (Jan/05)