A Global 'Soul Quest' With Jazz Artist Keiko Matsui

Oct 3, 2013
Originally published on October 3, 2013 2:05 pm
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Now a conversation with a celebrated jazz artist. This year, she is celebrating 25 years of recording in the United States. Along the way, she's worked with major stars like Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela. Her accessible sound resonates with audiences all over the world. We're talking about the pianist and composer Keiko Matsui.


MARTIN: That was "Stingo" from Keiko Matsui's latest album "Soul Quest." But Matsui is appreciated not just as an artist but as a humanitarian. She dedicates every song she writes to causes that move her - breast cancer awareness, environmentalism and efforts to combat hunger and poverty in Africa. Matsui was also in Japan when the deadly earthquake hit two years ago. Since then, she's been working to help rebuild the country, which is still feeling the effects of the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And Keiko Matsui is with us now to talk more about her work and her activism. She's with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

KEIKO MATSUI: Hi, Michel, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Where did the title of the album come from - "Soul Quest?"

MATSUI: I feel that this album carries lots of reflections from my thoughts and emotions. And those emotions and thought came from my experience based on the tour and also everyday life. And when I thought about the title - I feel like, wow, this is, like, I was on soul quest.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit from the title track. Here it is.


MARTIN: As we mentioned, you were in Japan at the time of the earthquake. Forgive me for taking you back to something that must have been very difficult to experience, but do you mind if I ask what that experience was like for you?

MATSUI: I was at the train station in Tokyo near my hometown. So I thought my life was going to end there. Fortunately, I could go back to my home where my daughter and my mom were there - and we were safe. Also, I have relatives in Sendai, which was the worse city affected by the tsunami. And I couldn't reach them - about three weeks. At same time, when I opened the computer and immediately I started receiving many e-mails and prayers from my friends, artists and also fans. Since then, I have been dedicating my concert. This opportunity gave us to think about many things. And now Japan was chosen for the Olympics in 2020.

MARTIN: Oh, that's true. That's right. Yeah, congratulations, that's a bright spot.

MATSUI: Thank you. Yeah, so everybody's happy in Japan, but at the same time, we have so much responsibility to solve all the problems and to welcome everybody to Japan. So I think this is a great cause, which gave us a strong, happy energy.

MARTIN: Let's hear another piece of music from the album. This is the first single, "Black Lion." Here it is.


MARTIN: This song, as I understand it, is based on your tour around Eastern Europe. In fact, the album itself was recorded and you worked on it really all over the world.


MARTIN: And this one was in Eastern Europe where you and your band played in five countries in five weeks.

MATSUI: Yes. It was a really hard tour. And sometimes we were in Siberia, like, minus 28 degrees. But this song came from the memory from the country of Georgia - promo that took us to the restaurant, which was called Black Lion. Then I met this painting of a black lion. From first site, I fell in love to black lion.


MARTIN: That tour didn't go off so smoothly. At one point, you were detained. What happened there?

MATSUI: That was on the way back to Los Angeles. So last show was in Minsk in Belarus and we were going to just transit in Moscow and then flying to Los Angeles. Passport - visa for Russia was expired, but we tried everything to get contact, the manager came and he said to take another visa, you have to stay 7 to 10 days more.

MARTIN: Oh, no. You weren't trying to do that.

MATSUI: One of my band members scream like, no. So that was really an emergency. And I felt so much responsibility because my tour manager went back to Japan and I'm the only leader there. We're, like, illegal, right. So I really thought, oh, my gosh, I cannot put them in jail.

MARTIN: Well, what happened?

MATSUI: There are export persons - they helped us. So in one day, we could get out of the country.

MARTIN: Are people still surprised when that kind of soulful sound they hear is coming from you? Very, you know, soft-spoken and rather petite Japanese woman. I mean, I think some people are surprised to even hear that you've had a 25-year career. People still surprised when you walk in, if they've only just heard your music, for example?

MATSUI: Yeah, some time I did a concert and one gentleman came to me - that was at the church last year - and he said, where did you get that soul? Everybody has soul, no, I said. But for me, when I perform or when I compose, I really feel connection from the above.

MARTIN: Let me play one more cut from the album. And this is "Antarctica - a Call to Action." Here it is.


MARTIN: How do you create an idea just through instrumental? I mean, if you had words, right, for a song like this, especially when you're trying to get a message across, you would have the lyrics. How do you try to marry the idea without the use of words?

MATSUI: This is like the first time I worked with Narada Michael Warden, who is a producer for Whitney Houston. He said, please bring beautiful piano melody and a funky groove. And this recording was very interesting because usually, I plan so well and then I go to the studio, but with Narada it was like first take - this piano. It is like, wow, how did I do it? Everything is like my heart and like a poem.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

MATSUI: And after this recording, we decided to dedicate this song for Antarctica, considering about the environment of this planet and also for the global warming.


MARTIN: Thank you for that. Just thinking about all the places you've been, I mean, just in the course of this album, in New York, Japan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Eastern Europe, Minsk, you know, Istanbul.

MATSUI: It sounds like I am crazy.

MARTIN: Right. Is there any place you haven't been that you want to go?

MATSUI: I am thinking to go to Peru to help kids there who are suffering from hunger and are poor, soon - from next year. I would like to travel there and start dedicating my music.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. What song should we go out on?

MATSUI: OK then, I'd like to share this song, "A Night with Cha Cha." This one came from the memory of Georgia. too. We had nice drink called Cha Cha and - that was fruity vodka - and we had a little bit of a party there. And it was so precious memories, so I named it this title.

MARTIN: OK, well, wish we had a sip of that, but...


MARTIN: ...We'll try to recall that. All right. Thank you.

MATSUI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks. Bye-bye.

MATSUI: Bye-bye.


MARTIN: That was "A Night with Cha Cha" from Keiko Matsui's latest album "Soul Quest." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.