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Bob James, Keiko Matsui two-play modern four-hands piano tradition

Bob James | Keiko Matsui “Altair & Vega” CD/DVD [September 27, 2011 eOne]

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The title track came to Fourplay founder Bob James with Japanese classical-jazz pianist Keiko Matsui in mind — 12 years prior to their four-hands piano duet performances, and album, together. EOne’s Altair & Vega was released on September 27, 2011 and contains the DVD and CD versions of the two composers in a lyrical dance quite literally and figuratively.

Fourplay’s Bob James and Keiko Matsui inspire one another in “Altair & Vega,” an eOne Music, September 27, 2011 release.
Fourplay’s Bob James and Keiko Matsui inspire one another in “Altair & Vega,” an eOne Music, September 27, 2011 release.
Jun Sato

Altair & Vega cannot be enjoyed without first watching the DVD, which shows the jazz legends sitting side by side on the same piano bench, sharing a straight line of keys, their hands performing in a perfectly choreographed, perfectly felt ballet, bending music to their will.

A combination of his and hers, as well as completely new compositions inspired by the duet, Altair & Vega became a DVD/CD after several performance and recording exchanges. Both prolific composers inspired by the very air around them, James thought of Matsui in writing Altair & Vega after meeting her at a Hollywood Bowl performance backstage. He later shared his song with her, excited about the possibility of teaming up. Their song would end up on James’ 2001 record, Dancing On The Water, through Warner Bros. She returned the favor by writing Ever After for James, from her record Whisper From The Mirror. A tour eventually followed, as the two singular artists honed their dynamics together and fine-tuned their songs.

This record finally came about after James and Matsui performed a Valentine Concert February 14, 2010 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. The live performance was captured on video. More music was laid down as tracks in James’ home studio in Traverse City, MI.

Eighteenth and 19th century composers such as Schubert, Haydn, and Brahms saw a need to develop the four-hands piano tradition, which isn’t used nearly enough by modern-day artists. Probably because, it’s difficult for two leading pianists to do well. It requires enormous dexterity, intuition, and a willingness to abdicate control, depending on who’s on fire at the moment. When viewing the DVD, especially on “Trees” and “Duo Oto Subito,” James and Matsui’s hands seem at first to wrestle for that control, swinging back and forth on the keys, her left hand bent close to her chest as he reaches over to her side, taking turns, taking liberties — the entire time, who’s on the sustain pedal? — everything sounding completely cohesive and yet diverse. That’s hard, but these two pull it off.

For James, playing with Matsui was more than he’d imagined. “There was no way for either one of us to know how we would get along that way, but she is very methodical in the way that she approaches the piano and accurate,” He said. “So I developed a lot of confidence that I know where and when she’s going to arrive on a note, and I try to be the same way with her. In fact, we always challenged each other for accuracy...at the end of every performance, one or the other of us would be depressed because we made the most mistakes. And when you have somebody else that you know is going to be really, really accurate, it motivates you to keep trying to get it better and better so that you don’t be the one that brings it down.”

That the two are very similar in many ways helps. Matsui noted their common ground, grounded in classical music and a fondness for improvisation. “Bob’s arrangements are very unique. Sometimes it’s like classical music with lots of written parts and sometimes we have lots of freedom to improvise. So mentally and technically, our mind and body are working hard to nail both worlds,” she added.

In skimming the surface, the songs — seven for the CD, six on DVD — draw heavily from the classical realm. Everything’s so soft and sweet, until Matsui draws her own dramatic, sultry curvatures (“Forever Variations”), drawing James in, as he helplessly follows. Oftentimes, he’s setting the stage and the foundation, while she waits, watches, listens enraptured, then flips the script with her moving interpretations. Or he’ll subtly swing a few funky, almost ragtime notes, and she’ll pick up on the tempo and style change, and switch places — literally, as well — letting him forage for awhile.

One of the most beautiful contributions is Matsui’s “Frozen Lake,” which she wrote after strolling along Long Lake by James’ home studio. She came in with her headphones on, furiously tapping away on the keys, James described in the concert footage, and a few hours later, she “auditioned this new piece… inspired by walking on water.” By the time they introduced “Frozen Lake” at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guid Valentine Concert, it was a work in progress and brand-new, compared to the songs they’d already had in the bag. It is textbook Matsui, full of dramatic anticipation, a sweeping, romantic build, melody everywhere, pulling minor chords.

Altair & Vega, the composition that started it all, is named after Japanese/Chinese folklore about two stars passing in the night once a year, a rare occurrence, much like this four-hand duet. In Japan, it’s an event called Tanabata. The Japanese put down their wishes on origami paper and hang their origami wishes on bambondero grass every July 7th for the night. The song is one of four not on the DVD. It fondly paints a lovely, soft portrait of Keiko Matsui as an artistic spirit, through Bob James’ admiring eyes. Besides the classical backgrounds, prolific compositional skills, and perfectionistic tendencies, these two also share a sense of the romantic. James wrote that romantic opening theme song to the 1970s hit sitcom, Taxi, that had an entire generation wondering who “Angela” was. Here, too, he gives grand mystery and delicate touches in the lyrical woodwork of this ode to his piano-dance partner, capturing her poetic, sculptural movements.

Both artists are currently on tour with their bands. Maybe Altair & Vega can cross paths again.

Artist quotes pulled from a press release, provided by DL Media.