The title of Keiko Matsui’s third album, 1990’s No Borders, has proven remarkably prophetic over the past 15 years as the composer-keyboardist has become one of contemporary jazz’s great global ambassadors. While the bulk of her 70-plus annual concert dates happen in Matsui’s native Japan and her adopted home of the United States - she and husband/producer Kazu Matsui live in Huntington Beach, California half the year - Matsui has truly emerged as a musical citizen of the world.
She squeezes in this early April interview from the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, where she is performing on a bill with Jane Monheit and Roberta Flack at Earl Klugh’s A Weekend of Jazz at the Broadmoor. The next week, she’s off to Moscow for her first-ever performance in the Russian capital city. Matsui’s been in parts of the former Soviet Union before, with dates these past few years in Latvia, Kiev in the Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. She’s played Johannesburg, South Africa annually since 2002. The crowds are enthusiastic everywhere, but for the best combination of food and beautiful scenery, nothing beats Istanbul.
“Everyplace I go, it’s wonderful to hear that people are passionate towards my music and very much into the concert, even if they are unfamiliar with some tunes going in,” she says. “Playing in front of 15,000 folks in Johannesburg, I heard something from the stage and wondered, are they singing? Turns out, after just one or two choruses, they were humming along, then chanting my name over and over. They also lit a bonfire there.
“They don’t have traditional radio outlets in these places,” Matsui adds, “but they’ve seen me on BET Satellite. In Hong Kong and Vietnam, I heard they use my music as background for TV shows. One of the girls at a top figure skating tournament in Moscow used my song ‘Whisper From the Mirror.’ There are so many unique ways to reach people. It reminds me how, despite our different religions and cultures, we can put our minds and hearts together through music and find common ground.”
True to her deep spiritual and often mystical nature, Matsui doesn’t limit her travels to physical realms. The million-plus fans who have bought at least one of Matsui’s previous recordings — her catalog from 1986 to present totals over a dozen — will likely be pouncing on maps of Japan or some other mystical Eastern land looking for the locale which inspired the title concept of her latest Narada Jazz disc Walls of Akendora. But it’s a place she created in her mind, where she escapes for contemplative ventures and moments of inner peace.
“Akendora is a fictional place of my own device,” she says. “It’s an imaginary city of another dimension, where everything is in harmony, all cultures exist in balance and man is at one with nature. I want the music to inspire a sense of adventure, where listeners can go and have wonderful experiences and enjoy beautiful visuals. I hope that I can communicate with my fans in this special place.” The mother of two daughters, 16-year-old Maya and nine year old Mako, adds, “The ‘walls’ do not refer to any barriers around this haven, but rather milestones. It’s like marking your child’s height on the wall. It’s about seeing where you have been and where you can go.”
Those who board the Akendora Express hoping for a return to Matsui’s jazzier side after several classical and world beat oriented releases will find ample rewards. She focuses on spirited, even swinging jazz, both free-form and ultra-playful. “Blue Butterfly” is a spacious, ambient jazz exercise with crazed piano runs and faint horn calls. She also spruces up her 1989 genre classic “Mountain Shakedown” with trip hop textures, a quicker bassline and richer piano improvisation.
“I’m always asking myself, why am I creating music, and as a musician, what can I do for a world in need?” she says. “I’m always looking to get involved and give something back. The world is getting more complicated and I think it’s hard to find solutions to our problems only with our heads. I think when people open up to music’s healing powers, together we can feel the oneness that the earth was intended to be. Someone recently told me that musicians have the magical power of shamans, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do my part.”
The recent return of Basia with Matt Bianco has led many smooth jazz fans to mourn the radio format’s early days — before pop oldies became the norm - when new vocalists and vocal albums had more of a presence. The sultry, intimate tones of Carol Duboc would have been all over the map in those days, but in 2005, the L.A. based singer-songwriter considers it a great accomplishment to hit the Radio & Records’ Indicator chart, which tracks more of the smaller market (and more openminded) stations.
“Use Me,” Duboc’s torchy take on the Bill Withers classic and first single from her Gold Note Music disc All Of You, has received airplay in places like Houston, Washington, D.C., Cleveland and several cities in Alabama. Duboc’s doing even better at XM Satellite Radio, and in May did a West Coast tour of Borders Bookstores, which also hosted dates in support of 2003’s Duboc. Thanks to her regular Sunday Brunch performances at Spaghettini’s in Huntington Beach, California, she’s also been interviewed on Los Angeles’ influential 94.7 The Wave. Making her publicist’s job even easier was her recent memorable film appearance as Pumpkin, a backup singer for a band managed by Vince Vaughn’s goofball character in Be Cool.
True to the album’s inviting balance of covers and Duboc originals, the second single is her soothing title track. In addition to 60’s hits “Sunny” and “Blackbird,” she also discovers gentleness in The Police hits “Every Breath You Take” and “Spirits In The Material World.”
“In the past, I’ve always written everything I sing, but I enjoyed the new challenge of interpreting pop and rock classics to fit my voice,” says the singer, whose composer resume includes cuts by Chante Moore, Patti Labelle and Stephanie Mills. “I’m working here with the band I’ve had for two years, and I’m particularly fond of the subtleties of John Leftwich’s upright bass and Land Richards’ beautiful brushes. But I approached all the songs from the point of view Darrell Crooks’ guitar, using his chords as a starting point for these arrangements. Taking the jazz quartet approach automatically softens things.”
After several years of success as an R&B songwriter under the tutelage of mega-producer Teddy Riley, The Kansas City born and raised Duboc saw an Al Jarreau performance which inspired her to consider a jazz-oriented vocal career. “A friend invited me to a live recording session for Al’s (1994) Tenderness album, and it changed my life. I loved the idea of using my voice as an instrument, since my favorite thing to do is write for instruments. So I focused my passion and followed my philosophy of never simply duplicating a song, but finding something authentic about myself within it.”
Currently riding high on the charts with Sweet Sensations, her bestselling album to date, soulful saxtress Pamela Williams is also featured on two upcoming Shanachie compilations — an R. Kelly collection and a gathering of classic R&B hits entitled Touch Me in the Morning, which includes performances by Will Downing. Williams plays lead on “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Betcha By Golly Wow” and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Close the Door.”
1) Rena Scott, Let Me Love You (Amor Records) – The one time backup singer for Aretha Franklin and featured performer with The Crusaders works up a soothing and romantic, ballad heavy collection that makes for the perfect soundtrack to a balmy summer night.
2) The Reverend Al Green, Everything’s OK (Blue Note)
3) Don Murray & Vuelo, Romanza (Whaling City Sound)
4) Patrick Yandall, Just Be Thankful (Apria Records)
5) David Pack, The Secret of Moving On (Peak Records)
New & Noteworthy
1) O’2L, Doyle’s Brunch (Peak Records)
2) Mark Carter, West Coast Groove (Mark Carter Productions)
3) Jeff Golub, Temptation (Narada Jazz)
4) Steve Cole, Spin (Narada Jazz)
5) Jim Brickman, Grace (Windham Hill/RCA Victor)