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Matsui Adds an Explosive Stage Presence to All-Star Fusion Tour

April 18, 1993|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes regularly about music for The Times.

The first sight of Keiko Matsui in action is one of the most provocative in contemporary instrumental music. At the start of a performance, she is almost out of sight behind banks of keyboards--a small, even reticent-appearing figure.

But when she straps an electronic keyboard instrument over her shoulder and moves to center stage, a dramatic transformation takes place. Slamming into head-to-head jams with the other players, knocking out riffs with the dynamic vigor of a heavy-metal rock guitarist, Matsui becomes an electrifying performer. Jazz critic Leonard Feather has described her as "a fluent soloist and one of the most attractive new additions to the fusion field."

Matsui appears at the Wiltern Theatre on Saturday night with an all-star group as part of a tour called "A Night on the Town." The ensemble is a kaleidoscopic mixture of contemporary pop and jazz fusion artists, also spotlighting South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, saxophonist Gerald Albright, guitarist Marcus Loya, pianist Dan Siegel, drummer Bernie Dresel and singers Chaka Khan and Philip Bailey. The tour's musical director is Matsui's husband, Kazu.

"I'm really looking forward to working with all these wonderful players," Matsui, 30, said during a North Hollywood rehearsal shortly before the tour began. "The music will not exactly be mine, and not exactly be anyone else's, but it will be a combination of all of us together."

Kazu Matsui agreed: "It will definitely be an unusual mixture. In fact, the first day of rehearsal was disastrous. It was like some burrito here, a bit of sushi there, a little African food over here. And I didn't know what to do, even though it's my job to be music director. But now it's getting together. We decided, from the beginning, not to expect anything--just see what happens, and enjoy it. And now it's getting to be fun."

The results have turned out to be equally pleasing to audiences on the 30-city tour. Early reviews from newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer have referred to Keiko's "explosive keyboard playing," and described "A Night on the Town" as "a night out of this world."

It's all a heady experience for the Tokyo-born keyboardist, who was captivated by jazz at age 12 and accepted into the Yamaha Music Foundation's advanced studies program in Tokyo as a teen-ager.

When she was 20, Keiko became the centerpiece for an all-female, fusion jazz group called Cosmos, which was organized by Yamaha. She met Kazu when he produced a concert and a promotional recording for the ensemble. Two years later, they were married.

Their first commercial album, "A Drop of Water," was done on a plain-wrap budget, using their honeymoon money to cover recording costs.

"Yes," added Keiko, "and my father's American Express card to pay for airplane tickets. But right after the album came out, we arrived at the airport (in Los Angeles) from Japan, got in the car, turned on the radio and heard one of my songs. I couldn't believe it. All the sacrifices were worthwhile."

The duo has been on a fast track ever since. Keiko's current release, "Cherry Blossom," is her fifth in the United States. Her previous CDs have scored well on the New Adult Contemporary charts, with "Night Waltz" reaching number eight on the Billboard listings.

Kazu has produced dozens of albums, and, as one of the few seasoned shakuhachi flute players in Los Angeles, is frequently heard on the soundtracks of films (including George Lucas' "Willow" and Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun") and television shows.

Despite the energetic qualities of her performances, Keiko speaks of her music in almost religious terms. "When I play live in concerts," she said, "I feel as though there is a prayer in my music, a spiritual aspect. I'm not a religious person, really, but there is something there that is spiritual. And I think some of it may come from my background in Japan, too. I just know that when I'm playing I sometimes get some strong energy--like my batteries feel recharged from making the music."

Many of her pieces reflect those qualities. Her aggressive jamming aside, Keiko's music tends to sing with an inner lyricism that can be more apparent on her recordings than in her live performances.

She concurs: "When we perform, I try to open up the music to feature more open space for the musicians' improvisational conversations. But when I compose, melody is very important to me, and that's usually what comes first when I write a song." Onstage, Kazu generally limits himself to occasional flute melodies. He is, however, in charge of the production and the business aspects of both their careers.

When the time comes to decide on the material for each new album, Kazu volunteers his preferences among the thematic fragments Keiko has developed, but the final process of making compositions out of bits and pieces of melody is completely up to her.

"The truth is that Keiko is a much better musician than I am," said Kazu. "I see it this way--with me producing and her performing, we have the perfect partnership."

Keiko Matsui and "A Night on the Town" all-star ensemble will perform at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., at 7 p.m. Saturday April 24. Tickets are $27 and $37.50. Call: (213) 380-5005.

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