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 in a recent news release.
“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.
Last year, the two performed a four-hands duet in Pittsburgh at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, 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.”
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.”