Everyone can use a good shakeup once in a while to put things into perspective, and the nervous system of Japanese-born pianist and composer Keiko Matsui certainly underwent a serious reboot when she found herself in a Tokyo train station during the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. That scare, balanced out by a happier occasion, the 25th anniversary of her U.S. recording debut in 2012, inform the music on Soul Quest, not surprisingly a work of contrasting emotions and sensibilities.
For the sessions, Matsui called on an A-list of collaborators, most notably guitarist/keyboardist Chuck Loeb, who produced and arranged half of its 10 tracks, also co-writing three with Matsui and offering one on his own. Other marquee names include bassists Will Lee and Marcus Miller, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and drummer Narada Michael Walden, who produced and arranged three tracks and co-wrote the album’s finale, “Stingo,” a tribute to Sting. One of the more ebullient of the set, and owing very little to its inspiration, the tune is built around Matsui’s effervescent, economical lead melody and a deep rhythmic pulse set up by Walden. Like all of Soul Quest, it eschews rough edges and unexpected turns in favor of smart construction and genial tune-craft.
That’s not to misconstrue Soul Quest as lightweight. “Antarctica—A Call to Action” trades off between tranquility and fervid statements spotlighting Whalum’s tenor and soprano, and the title track is filled with mystery and intrigue, Matsui’s own tastefully rendered licks played against the edgier keys and programming of the album’s third producer, Derek Nakamoto. “A Night With Cha Cha” would seem to owe its sway to Brazil, while “Black Lion” balances a subdued but danceable beat—Nakamoto again—with the kind of rich melody that sticks around after the track fades.