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Dancing on the keyboard: The latest from Bob James

Posted Monday, December 5, 2011, at 5:30 PM

Cover art for "Altair and Vega" by Bob James and Keiko Matsui.
Four hands, two people, one keyboard.

Bob James' latest recording is a small dance across an ivory stage as he and Keiko Matsui together create a rich, beautiful sound.

"Altair and Vega" seems to be fusion of classical piano with sparkles throughout of jazz-influenced improvisation. It moves between catchy, lilting melodies and powerful, moving passages.

The pair performed the title piece on James' 2000 album, "Dancing on the Water," and here they build on that foundation. "Dancing," a piano-dominated set of solo and duet pieces, is one of my favorite Bob James albums, so I was predisposed to appreciate "Altair and Vega," and I wasn't disappointed.

I haven't yet seen the DVD eOne publishes along with the album, but the music inspires the imagination and as you listen you can almost see the fingers of these piano masters dancing along the keyboard.

In a news release about the album, James talks about the challenges of four-hand piano.

"It's not for everybody because a lot of pianists don't want to give up that control," James said. "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 said. "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."

In an interview, he describes the physical moves required for two pianists to share a keyboard:

"When our fans see us, then they get it because we do a lot of what I guess you would call choreography -- hand choreography. We cross hands a lot, and sometimes we even get up from the bench and switch places. It becomes a little bit of musical chairs, which we love, and all of that comes across on the DVD."

There are two historical influences at work in "Altair & Vega," one for the name and one for the technique. James explains that the four-hand piano technique was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pieces were written by classical composers such as Haydn, Brahms and Schubert.

One result of the technique was to make complex orchestral music available to more people. He notes that Beethovens complete works were arranged for four-hand piano and so were some of Mozart's symponies.

"It was done that way in that time because it was too difficult for one pianist to do it," he said in an interview with Mike Ragogna. "There was too much to cover with all the stuff the orchestra was doing ..." But two pianists could provide "a more accurate rendition of what the music held. Also, they didn't have stereos in that era, so if the symphony orchestra didn't come to your town, the only way you could hear this symphonic work was through these arrangements."

The other history at work in the title piece is the Japanese holiday of Tanabata, which is connected to the legend of two stars, Altair and Vega, who fell in love and married but were only able to see each other once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.

"Originally this story came from China," Matsui said in the news release. "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 festival of Tanabata festival celebrates improvement of technical skill and ability. The story has a certain kinship with James' approach to music and his advice to young musicians.

In one version of the story, Orihime is a princess who weaves for her father. She works so hard at her weaving, she realizes, that she has no time to fall in love. Seeing her sadness, her father arranges for her to meet Kengyuu, a cowherd who lives on the other side of the Milky Way.

The two fall in love, marry, and are happy. Unfortunately, Orihime neglects her weaving and Kengyuu lets his cows wander across the heavens. Orihime's father becomes angry and separates the two so they can see to their duties. However, he eventually takes pity on them and allows them to meet once per year.

In his interview with Ragogna, James says there is no substitute for hard work when it comes to developing as an artist.

"I don't believe there are any shortcuts, so the better prepared you are, the better your chances of having a successful career," he said. "I hear a lot of young artists talk about needing to get a break -- I believe that everybody gets the break, but it's a question of what you do when that break happens."

This album shows the result of hard work, great talent and a few breaks along the way. We get 47 minutes of impressive piano performance.

Note: Bob James will appear in Marshall as a special guest during the Bob James Jazz Festival concert May 19, 2012, at Bueker Middle School. For more information about the festival, visit www.bobjamesjazzfest.org.


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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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