Keiko Matsui: Journey to the Heart (Shanachie)

Keiko Matsui: "Journey to the Heart"
Keiko Matsui: “Journey to the Heart”

Keiko Matsui’s 27th recording as a leader, Journey to the Heart, marks the 30th anniversary of the pianist-composer’s recording debut. Such career milestones often drive artists to reinvent their stylistic approach or overarching vision. Matsui instead opts for consolidation, the album’s 10 original compositions marked by the unwavering commitment to melody and the open-eyed emotional engagement that have always distinguished her music.

Journey to the Heart finds Matsui backed by a quartet of Latin American musicians, with several of the compositions likewise evincing a notably Latin character. “Havana Nights” twirls through a sprightly melody before its hard-pounding block-chord bridge, powered by the forceful drums of Jimmy Branley and Luis Quintero’s light yet insistent percussion. Snaky samba-kissed lines galvanize the sultry “Carnival,” with deftly lilting solos from guitarists Ramon Stagnero and J.P. Mourão. In a different vein, Moroccan-style drums and piano propel the headlong “Casablanca,” an elegant showcase for the twinned attack of Matsui and the harmonica of special guest Grégoire Maret.

The harmonica player also features strongly on “Two Harbors,” the track a reminder that Matsui is one of contemporary jazz’s foremost ballad composers. On “The Edge of Twilight,” Quintero’s chimes brightly accent Matsui’s delicate maturity before the track bursts into pungent solos from the pianist and Stagnero. “Butterfly” offers the album’s purest, most heart-tugging melody, caressed by plangent strings arranged by Randy Waldman, while “Blue Rose” is alternately mournful and, in its fragile music-box interlude, surprisingly chilling.

But Matsui also creates sounds of exultation, most notably on the soaring “New Beginning,” where the pianist’s gentle-then-concussive notes and Waldman’s plunging strings recall Bill Conti’s heroic anthems for the Rocky films. And with this album, beautifully produced by bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, Matsui herself, entering her fourth decade as a recording artist, takes a very well-earned victory lap.