Personnel: Keiko Matsui (piano); Ramon Stagnero (guitar); Grégoire Maret (harmonica); Jimmy Branley (drums); Luis Quintero (percussion).
Audio Mixer: Don Murray .
Recording information: Stagg Street Studios, Van Nuys, CA; United Recording Studios, Hollywood, CA.
Photographer: Lori Stoll.
Arranger: Carlitos Del Puerto.
Released in 2013, Keiko Matsui's funky, groove-centric Soul Quest featured Narada Michael Walden, Marcus Miller, Chuck Loeb, and Kirk Whalum, among others. It placed high on the jazz charts and set her upon a world tour that resulted in 2015's Live in Tokyo. Arriving in 2016, Journey to the Heart marks her 27th album as a leader and her 30th anniversary as a recording artist. It's a much more organic set that places her acoustic piano at the fore. Her collaborators include bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, drummer Jimmy Branley, guitarist Ramon Stagnero, percussionist Luis Quintero, and Grégoire Maret on harmonica. Four of these ten tracks also include strings. Opener "Moving On" is the obvious single with its Afro-Cuban intro that gives way to a punchy, soulful hook. With its songlike melody, the guitarist twins her lines and answers her tags and bridge, building it all to an anthemic crescendo. If the track has a flaw, it's that it's not long enough. "Carnival" adds second guitarist J.P. Mourao. The gorgeous augmented piano chords, hand percussion, and samba vamp seamlessly meld Brazilian pop and jazz. The shimmering guitars bounce off one another in bright interplay before Matsui trades fours with Mourao. "Casablanca" is introduced by Maret (he also accompanies Matsui through the melody). The tune weaves North African modalism, flamenco, Latin jazz, and French café music in a swirl of fingerpicked guitars, a trap kit, and hand percussion. While the title track features a string intro worthy of vintage Hollywood, Matsui offers crystalline classical chord voicings before entertaining the rhythm section in a sprightly Latin waltz. A slide guitar break from Stagnero adds a hint of steamy blues to the equation. "Havana Nights" is a lovely rhumba -- nearly hummable! -- with fantastic co-action from the rhythm section, lovely arpeggios from Matsui and Stagnero, and a great conga break from Quintero. "Two Harbors" is another showcase for the interaction between Maret and the pianist. Their harmonic engagement is tender and intuitive as the rhythm section glides around them. Closer "Blue Rose" is classical crossover. It places the leader's glorious Chopin-esque pianism in a solo dialogue with chamber strings. Played by this fine band, Journey to the Heart weaves strands of many different musics into a seamless, wide-ranging whole. This date doesn't showcase Matsui as a piano technician (though there is plenty of that here) so much as a jazz composer, arranger, and bandleader capable of delivering gorgeous, imaginative tunes. ~ Thom Jurek