A prolific composer, Grammy-winner and founding member of the contemporary jazz supergroup Fourplay, pianist Bob James explores the classically influenced side of his immense musicality on Altair & Vega. A duet project recorded with fellow piano virtuoso Keiko Matsui, it's a modern take on the four-hands piano tradition established in the 18th and 19th centuries by the likes of such classical composers as Haydn, Brahms and Schubert.
Named for a Japanese folkloric tale about the seventh day of the seventh month (July 7th - an annual celebration known as Tanabata), Altair and Vega are two stars in the galaxy that pass by each other only once a year. "So this kind of rare meeting of these two fictional characters seemed to be a good title because it also described my eventual hookup with Keiko on this project," says James.
"Originally this story came from China," adds Matsui. "Later it was combined with Japanese tradition. We write one's wish and prayer on origami (Japanese traditional color paper) and hang it from bambondero grass. We decorate bamboo with origami under the sky for an evening.For us, July 7th is a special day with romantic feeling."
The genesis of this four-hands piano project came 12 years ago when James wrote a piece he titled "Altair & Vega" that he envisioned playing with Matsui. "I didn't really know Keiko at that time," he recalls. "I had only met her once backstage at the Hollywood Bowl but I just thought I would send her this piece of music to see if she might be interested in playing it. I always found it a fun challenge to have two people both sitting at the same piano, working out the choreography and how their hands would go back and forth."
The two ultimately got together in the studio when Matsui was on tour in the States and they recorded Altair & Vega as a four-hands piece, which was released in 2001 on James' Dancing on the Water (Warner Bros.). Matsui responded by writing a piece for James called "Ever After," which had appeared on her album Whisper from the Mirror. Shortly after, James and Matsui embarked on a tour together of nine Japanese cities, performing four-hands piano adaptations of their original compositions. "And we had a great time doing it," recalls James. "The audiences loved it, but for a variety of contractual reasons and other problems, we never really got to complete an actual CD project of that music."
LISTEN TO EXCLUSIVE STREAMING TRACKS FROM ALTAIR & VEGA
Last year, the two performed a four-hands duet in Pittsburgh at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG), which was documented on video. Two days before that, they had performed a concert in James' hometown, Traverse City, Michigan, and later documented the music in James' home studio. A CD/DVD package of those four-hands piano performances is now available on the eOne label.
"Most of the music on this project crosses borders," says James. "There are some elements of classical music along with elements of Keiko's and my different influences. So it is partially written and partially improvised."
On Matsui's Frozen Lake, a piece she wrote at the session after taking a walk on Long Lake by James' home studio, James performs on an Avant Grand digital piano, which gives him a kind of Fender Rhodes effect. His Divertimento: The Professor & The Student is a variation on a piece by Haydn that was originally written for piano duet. "He was using it as a method for teaching so he could sit down at the piano and play with students," James explains. "So he would play a phrase and the student would echo it or answer it. And I used that as a jumping off place for me and Keiko. So I play the role of the professor and she plays the part of the student, and those actually became our nicknames during the course of our working together on this project."
Matsui's Midnight Stone and Invisible Wing are previously recorded pieces given a new four-hands treatment here while the lengthy 13-minute suite, The Forever Variations, is a four-hands take on Matsui's popular theme Forever Forever. "That is, for the most part, written," says James. "Although the kind of jazz or funk stuff that happens in the middle is improvised. So there are a couple of places where we take off."
They also turn in an enchanting arrangement of J.S. Bach's Chorale from Cantata BWV 147 which the two had played together on tour in Japan. As Matsui explains, "In 2002, I did a Christmas show in Tokyo and I invited Bob as guest. And he brought this beautiful four-hands arrangement of the Bach piece as Christmas present for me. We performed it for first time at that show. I love this arrangement. So beautiful and cool!"
Adds Matsui, "Bob's arrangements are very unique. Sometimes it's like classical music with lots of written parts and sometimes we have lots of freedom to improvise. So mentally and technically, our mind and body are working hard to nail both worlds."
Regarding the challenges of the four-hands technique, James says, "It's not for everybody because a lot of pianists don't want to give up that control. There's only one sustain pedal, for example. So whoever does the sustain pedal has a lot of power over phrasing and smooth transitions. I think most of us pianists very often use the pedal as a kind of crutch to smooth our way through technical passages that we're either having trouble with or whatever. And if you happen to be the pianist who doesn't have control over the sustain pedal, you better make sure that your technique is really accurate.
"The other thing is, once we get in the middle of the keyboard, fingering becomes very important," he continues. "Because if some of your fingers are sticking out there and getting in the way of your partner, you make it impossible for them to play. So you have to make sure that you avoid those clashes. And you do that by giving up control and becoming a team. So you have to agree about the way you pass the ball back and forth melodically so that the two really become one person on one piano."
James says that Matsui was an ideal partner on this four-hands project. "Keiko was a dream to work with. There was no way for either one of us to know how we would get along that way, but she is very methodical in the way that she approaches the piano and accurate. So I developed a lot of confidence that I know where and when she's going to arrive on a note, and I try to be the same way with her. In fact, we always challenged each other for accuracy...at the end of every performance, one or the other of us would be depressed because we made the most mistakes. And when you have somebody else that you know is going to be really, really accurate, it motivates you to keep trying to get it better and better so that you don't be the one that brings it down."
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