Bob James & Keiko Matsui (piano 4 hands) – Altair & Vega – Tappan Zee Records EOM-CD-2125 (CD + DVD-4:3) *****:
A simply delightful dual disc, with the video concert including three selections also on the CD plus three different ones. The pair of pianists come from quite different backgrounds: James fronts the band Fourplay, and Matsui performs and records more jazz-oriented material under her own name. The two have resurrected what once was a very popular family music-making tradition—the cozy setup of two pianists sitting on the same piano bench and playing music especially written for four hands at the keyboard. Schubert, Schumann, Mozart and others wrote many such pieces, and others arranged popular solo piano selections and even some orchestral selections for four-hand performance. This is a combination of the East and West in music and falls into that ever-expanding area that partakes of both classical and jazz genres but is really neither.
The history of jazz has had a number of duo performers on keyboards, whether they be piano, organ, sythn, or what have you. There were the great duo-piano recordings by Ellington and Basie, and the more recent ones by Chick Corea and people like Herbie Hancock or Hiromi. But most have been two separate keyboards rather than two performers at one keyboard. Bill Evans is known for his Conversations with Myself albums of the ‘60s, where he overdubbed his playing.
The two pianists toured the world in 2001 doing the same thing, and this is their new effort. During their tours Keiko’s husband Kazu (who also plays the shakuhachi) handles the lighting, and during one of their Japanese tours James even wore a traditional obi. This video was filmed in Milliken Auditorium at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. The two play around with the four-hand setup, sometimes one handling the treble and then getting up to move to do the bass part. There are three-hand sections, and occasionally one keyboardist will get up and sit close by while the other solos. There are plenty of challenges for each to adapt their technique to work with another person playing the keyboard at the same time. And it’s not just the 88 keys, but also sharing the seat, foot pedals and dampers of the piano. The choreography of the performers is one of the interesting parts of the videos, as they cross hands and arms, avoiding collisions.
The composition of the original tunes followed an interesting course. The four-hand idea started with James offering Keiko the challenge to create a four-hand work for one of his albums. He was most impressed with the result. Keiko says she writes down most of the notes like a classical piece, but leaves open some blank spots for improvisation. Both artists benefit from their classical and European influences in both music and literature. One of their pieces is subtitled “The Professor & The Student” — Bob has been musical director with Sarah Vaughn and Grover Washington Jr. and is known as The Professor. He has also done a piano album of Rameau pieces, and explored works of Scarlatti and Bach on sythns in earlier albums. Two of Keiko’s recent albums were titled Tribal Mozart and Tribal Schubert. On this CD, the two conclude the disc with Bob’s arrangement for four-hands of a Bach Chorale. The only other tune not by the two of them or one of the other is Ray Noble’s “The Touch of Your Lips” on the video DVD.
I would suggest watching the DVD first; then the CD will seem even more of an in-depth experience. This is a rare, skillful and intimate musical experience and an exemplary use of the CD + DVD format.
Altair & Vega, Frozen Lake, Divertimento (“The Professor & The Student”), Midnight Stone, Invisible Wing, The Forever Variations, BACH: Chorale from Cantata BWV 147
Divertimento, Frozen Lake, Trees, Duo Oto Subito, The Touch of Your Lips, Forever Variations
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