He Hears a Rhapsody

Having straddled the worlds of jazz and classical music, pianist Makoto Ozone ’83 opens up about taking musical risks.
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“This is one of the biggest weeks of my life!” Makoto Ozone ’83 says as he sits in his dressing room backstage at David Geffen Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. Ozone, conductor Alan Gilbert, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra just finished rehearsing the two pieces Ozone will perform with the orchestra in a series of concerts. It’s rare for an artist who has built a career in jazz to appear as the soloist in two major classical works in a single program with one of America’s most revered orchestras. “I used to live in New York and walked by this place all the time,” Ozone reminisces. “I never imagined then that I’d be working here.”

Ozone grew up in Kobe, Japan, eschewing classical piano lessons in his youth, opting for a life in jazz. The road he’s traveled, however, has now brought him to a point where he has become a celebrated pianist in both jazz and classical music. Lately he has been reexaming his journey. “The more I talk about my life, the more I see that I had no plan or vision,” he says. “I am an improviser.”

During the early 1980s, Ozone became a globe-trotting jazz composer, pianist, and recording artist. He’s toured and recorded with fellow pianist Chick Corea, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, vibraphonist Gary Burton ’62, and saxophonist Michael Brecker, among countless other A-listers. He’s released about 30 albums as the primary artist and composer in solo, duo, trio, and other settings. He has also appeared as a sideman on dozens more jazz recordings.

The November concerts with the New York Philharmonic were certainly a high water mark for Ozone, but not his maiden voyage in classical waters. Through a misunderstanding about a decade ago, he found himself committed to play a Mozart piano concerto with an esteemed Japanese conductor. It was a trepidatious experience that ultimately opened up a new world of musical and professional opportunities. These days, about half of Ozone’s gigs are classical and half jazz. Days before appearing with the New York Phil, he led a jazz trio with bassist James Genus and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts ’81 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a few blocks from Geffen Hall. Among the audience during Ozone’s two sets were members of Leonard Bernstein’s family and maestro Alan Gilbert, as well as Paquito D’Rivera, whom Ozone invited to sit in with the trio.

On November 2, 2017, Ozone took the stage with the Philharmonic and opened with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The work reflects the ambiance of the 1920s jazz era with instrumentation that includes tenor banjo, saxophones, wah-wah-muted brass, and chirping and swooping clarinets. The alternating orchestral tutti sections and generous piano solo spots offered Ozone occasion to bend Gershwin’s themes to his contemporary style. His fleet-fingered lines and reharmonizations blurred the line between the classical and jazz languages.

Leonard Bernstein’s half-hour-long Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety for piano and orchestra followed the intermission. Ozone plumbed the depths of its introspective prologue before bounding into catchy, frolicking figures, dancing through 14 variations. He then navigated the ebb and flow of the work’s subsequent three sections that juxtapose fetching melodies with angular tone rows and dense, spikey chordal passages. After Ozone’s piano punctuation of the final triumphant chord, the audience leapt to its feet in thunderous applause.

Whether he’s playing jazz or classical repertoire, it’s apparent to listeners that Ozone is deep inside the music, transported to some other place. His facial expressions and body movements convey a sense of wonder at where the music is taking him. As a pianist, Ozone has something to say. He is authentic in his approach to whatever music he’s playing. His desire to communicate with people through notes is paramount. Musical styles appear as new vistas rather than barriers. In Ozone’s big musical tent, it’s all just music.

Why do you think jazz became so popular in Japan?

After World War II, a lot of Americans were stationed at military bases in Japan and bands there were playing Dixieland music. My father came from a very wealthy family that had a huge mansion in Kobe. When the Americans knew they were winning the war, they didn’t bomb these huge houses, because they knew they’d need a place to stay. They took over my grandparents’ house. My grandparents could speak English—which was rare—because they had spent four months in London for their honeymoon.

I seem to be very comfortable absorbing the core of different styles of music.

They became friendly with the army and were invited to parties at the house where bands were playing Dixieland. My father went too and picked up music. He thought the American people were very nice; they gave him chocolate. So through things like that, jazz became a popular music in Japan. So many people wanted to play jazz, and they learned it from Americans directly; they learned how to swing. My father learned from the American musicians and I learned from him. He told me to learn from the records to really get the feel.

Your father is a piano player. Was he an influence on your becoming a musician?

My father is 83 now and he still likes to play. I just did a family concert a few months ago with my father and my brother Hiroshi [’85], who plays saxophone. When I was young, my father was very busy doing TV, radio, and concerts. He wasn’t home much. My teachers were records. We had a Hammond organ at home, and I started to play it. My father had a record by [jazz organist] Jimmy Smith, and I was very attracted to his sound on the record. My mother wanted me to take piano lessons when I was five, but it was a painful experience that made me dislike piano and classical or written music.

Were you playing only by ear at that point?

Yes. I played simple songs on the organ. The first song I learned was “Mack the Knife.” I was two or three and found I could play the melody mostly on the black keys. My father asked me why I played it in such a hard key and told me to try it up a half step. I tried it and it became like a game for me to find the notes in a different key. I had a repertoire of four or five songs back then.

When I was 12, my uncle gave me a ticket to go see Oscar Peterson. I went but wasn’t expecting much because I wasn’t into piano. I was in the front row when he came out and started playing jazz. I didn’t know that people played jazz on the piano then. I went home and told my mother that I wanted to play piano.

Did you start reading music for piano then?

I told my mother that I wanted a piano teacher to show me technique only. Coming from the organ, I needed to develop piano technique. I started to read music enough to learn the technical exercises. It still takes me a while to read complex chord voicings. Single-note lines are fine. You can imagine how long it took me to learn The Age of Anxiety.

What prompted your decision to come to Berklee?

When I was 10, my dad took me to a concert by Jimmy Smith in Osaka. After the concert, we went to Jimmy’s dressing room and there was a piano there. My father told me to play “The Cat,” a blues tune by Jimmy that I knew. I started playing and Jimmy came over and we were playing four hands on the piano. Then Kenny Burrell came in and took out his guitar and [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet joined in. Illinois told my dad to send me to Juilliard. When I found out it was a classical school, I knew there was no way I could get in and wasn’t interested.

I had a teacher, Tadao Kitano, showing me music theory and arranging, and he told me to check out Berklee. He led a big band and I loved big-band music. I grew up listening to the Buddy Rich and Count Basie bands. Sadao Watanabe [’65] and Toshiko Akiyoshi [’59] had gone to Berklee. I went to see Toshiko, this little Japanese lady who wrote the music conducting a band of American guys including her husband Lew Tabackin. And the band was killing! So I decided I wanted to go to Berklee to major in jazz composition.

Is it true that you had made your first record before you graduated from Berklee?

I made a recording of a live concert with Phil Wilson at the Berklee Performance Center, just piano and trombone. I couldn’t release until after I graduated because I needed a work visa to do that. Quincy Jones had heard me at my graduation and wanted me to make a record. I flew out to his house to discuss it and he wanted to give me a huge budget. I had met Gary Burton when he came back to teach at Berklee in 1983, and through him I met [jazz booking agent] Ted Kurland. Ted looked over [Quincy’s] offer and told me not to sign it because a jazz record wouldn’t recoup that amount of expenses.

John Hammond had heard my recording with Phil Wilson and called up George Butler at CBS Records and told him to sign me. This was just after Wynton and Branford Marsalis had signed with CBS. George called up Ted and told him he wanted to sign me. Their budget was lower, more in line with a jazz album budget. Ted said I should take it, so I didn’t sign with Quincy. By June, after I graduated, I had given my solo debut concert at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and had a record deal with CBS.

You have worked with so many different jazz artists, including Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Branford Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Mike Stern, and many others. That must have given you experience in many styles within the jazz genre.

I seem to be very comfortable absorbing the core of different styles of music. Learning new styles is like learning a language. Herbie Hancock told me that when he is going to play electric music, he’ll hang out with people who play it. I take that approach too. My trio played at the Blue Note when I was 25 or 26 and Paquito’s band was also playing. We were together for six nights and sat in on each other’s sets. I learned a lot listening to Portinho [Thelmo Porto] playing drums, Lincoln Goines playing bass, and Claudio Roditi’s trumpet playing samba music with Paquito.

What can you share about your approach to writing your own tunes?

I write music with specific players in mind. I wrote “Where Do We Go from Here?” after 911, a very emotional piece that I recorded with Michael Brecker. He played it just the way I heard it in my head. He even improvised in the way I imagined he would.

I write trio music for [bassist] James Genus and [drummer] Clarence Penn and other music to play in a trio with [bassist] Christian McBride and [drummer Jeff] “Tain” [Watts]. The tunes are very different. I had never played with the combination of James Genus and Tain until last night at Dizzy’s. I was very interested in hearing how Tain would play the music that Clarence usually plays.

Some people say that you should show your own identity [in your writing] and even be a little bit egotistical. Gary taught me an important lesson about being egotistical. When I was young playing with him, I was always playing really fast and busy. He told me when I joined his band that I might have been a star player at school playing with people who were not as good as me. But I was now in a band with people who had 100 times more experience than I had. He told me not to get in their way. I didn’t know how to listen then. Gary taught me about that.

How many pieces have you composed?

There are probably about 300, and 50 of them are for big band. I’ve written a symphony and a piano concerto too. The concerto was written in 2004 for a Japanese cultural event and is based on a traditional Japanese folk song. It’s in three movements for full orchestra.

Did you form your Japanese big band No Name Horses to showcase your large ensemble writing?

No Name Horses started from my work with Kimiko Itoh, a jazz singer. I had been producing her records and she wanted to do a project with her husband who plays big-band music. I wrote some charts and called a friend and Berklee alumnus Eric Miyashiro [’84], who played lead trumpet for Buddy Rich up until Buddy died. He put the band together with first-call musicians from Tokyo. We went into the studio and the band sounded so good, we decided to do a tour. Later, we made a second record and toured again. We have had the band for 10 years now and it’s been so much fun. Half of the band members are Berklee alumni.

What was the path that eventually brought you to playing classical music?

In 1983, after my debut at Carnegie Hall, I was invited to play in Berlin at a 300th anniversary celebration of J.S. Bach’s birth. Ted Kurland booked it and told me that since Bach was a great improviser; all I had to do was go there and improvise. When I got to Berlin, I met with the promoter. He asked me what Bach piece I was going to play. I told him I was just going to improvise. He said I could improvise but it had to be based on a Bach piece. So I went out and bought a book of Bach’s two-part inventions and picked number 13, which I played when I was young. I hadn’t touched it in years and was supposed play it that night in front of a full house in Berlin.

Everyone else who was playing was an expert on Bach’s music. I practiced all day and felt fine. But when I got onstage, I wasn’t mentally prepared. I played it too slowly and carefully and made some mistakes. My improvised part was OK. The first three minutes of it were televised, and people hated it. After that I didn’t want to play written music in front of people for about 10 years. Then a chance to play Rhapsody in Blue came up. I talked to my wife about it, and she said that this time I would have six months to prepare, not a few hours. She thought I should do it. So I played Rhapsody in Blue in 1996, in the small band orchestration.

He called me back two minutes later saying they wanted me to play Mozart. I told him I didn’t play Mozart, but he said it was too late because I had accepted the offer.

In 2003, I was invited to play with the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra. Previously, I had heard their conductor, Tadaaki Otaka, interviewed on the radio. He said he wanted to play Rhapsody in Blue with me. Because I am a jazz musician, I just assumed they would want me to play that piece. I let it sit for a while and then had my manager call to confirm what they wanted me to play. He called me back two minutes later saying they wanted me to play Mozart. I told him I didn’t play Mozart, but he said it was too late because I had accepted the offer. I had him ask which Mozart concerto they wanted me to play and they said I could pick one. I went to a record store and found out Mozart had written 27 piano concertos! It took me 10 days to listen to them all before I picked number 9, Jeunehomme. I had six months to prepare it and think about how I would approach it. I wondered if I should take it in my direction because some of the parts are so difficult, and with Mozart’s orchestration, the piano is very exposed. I had technical problems playing some parts and worried about playing the piece in front of 2,000 classical music fans. When I tried to change it, it didn’t sound right. I decided that whatever happened, I was just going to be faithful to what Mozart wrote. I practiced my butt off and got through the piece without any major problems.

My opinion changed from disliking playing written music to loving it when I was learning this piece. Reading through the first movement slowly, I saw that the theme kept coming back, and then in the development section, Mozart took this 10-bar theme through the universe! I was in tears. I felt it was the essence of improvisation and I wished I could improvise like that. It killed me and really got me interested in playing more of Mozart’s music.

People seemed to feel that the way I played it was very emotional and I got good comments from players in the orchestra. Tadaaki Otaka is one of the most highly respected maestros in Japan, and he loved the way I interpreted the piece. He got the word out to his colleagues about me and I began getting calls to play Mozart. That’s how this all got started.

Mr. Kajimoto was the vice president of Kajimoto [Concert Management], and he heard my Mozart and loved it. He took me to Poland to play it with an orchestra in Warsaw. The following year, I played Beethoven’s second piano concerto. He then asked me to join Kajimoto, which is the top classical agency in Japan. He was interested in broadening the company’s vision and to learn about jazz and other music. I have been with them now for 10 years.

How many concertos do you have in your repertoire?

Fifteen. I play Mozart’s concertos 6, 9, 10, 12, 24, and 27; Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Shostakovich 1, Prokofiev 3, Beethoven 2, three concertos by Gershwin, Ravel’s Concerto in G, and Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety. When I came to Kajimoto I promised that I would learn one concerto each year.

I noticed that you improvised in the solo piano sections of Rhapsody in Blue when you played it with the New York Philharmonic. Is that the only concerto in which you take those liberties?

Mozart was an improviser, and so when I play his concertos I play my own cadenzas. The form for Rhapsody in Blue is pretty forgiving for improvising because the orchestra pauses during the solo sections. I try to be as faithful as possible to Gershwin’s musical language, but I use harmonic structures and voicings from today. It’s all based on what the piece is about.

How did you befriend conductor Alan Gilbert?

Kajimoto connected me with the New York Philharmonic when he was going to bring them to Japan for a tour. He suggested me as the soloist for Rhapsody in Blue because I had played the piece a few times by then. At first Alan said no because he didn’t know who I was. He didn’t want just anybody—a jazz player—to come in for their tour. But Kajimoto sent him a DVD of me playing the piece and after watching it, Alan said, “Let’s do it.” I came to New York to hear the orchestra and meet with Alan. It was interesting, he didn’t want to talk much about Rhapsody in Blue, he wanted to talk about Art Blakey and Horace Silver. He invited me to do the tour in Korea and Japan because he liked what I did.

You must practice quite a bit to learn and maintain your classical repertoire in addition to everything else you’re playing.

I used to make fun when someone would tell me that they were practicing eight hours a day. Now I have to apologize to those people! I need more than eight hours a day, but my fingers can’t take it. You could ruin your hands by overdoing it. I practice for two hours, take an hour off and then come back and practice more. I begin at 8:00 A.M. and finish around 10:00 P.M.

Has your classical practice regimen had an effect on your jazz playing?

I am a better pianist than I was 10 years ago. My technique has gotten so much better. When I first started working on Mozart, there were [Alberti bass] figures in the left hand that I couldn’t do. I could play fast Oscar Peterson licks with my left hand, those seemed easier to play. Jazz musicians play fast with the [patterns] they already know. Your hands don’t go to places they haven’t been before. When you play Prokofiev or Rachmaninov, you have to find a way to play those notes. The more I play these pieces, the more I want to do with them. In a right-hand passage, I might want to play the top voice staccato with one finger while another finger plays tenuto. I have to work on getting that independence.

What’s the breakdown in your schedule between classical and jazz concerts?

Before I came to New York, I played The Age of Anxiety with the Tokyo Metropolitan and the week before I played the Prokofiev with the NHK Orchestra in Japan. I played a lot of classical concerts this year. It is getting to be close to half-jazz and half-classical work.

In my first year with Kajimoto, I only played two or three classical concerts. Now I am doing a lot more. I have a big band tour coming up in December, and I’m writing charts for that now on my computer in my hotel room. I’m also working on a film score.

Most artists don’t have such diverse gigs.

I am grateful to Mine Okamoto, my manager, and producer of sorts. She’s continually inspiring me with the music and opportunities. She knows so much about classical music and always challenges me to discover new material.

I’m like a bridge between two genres. I want to send a message that people need to learn things beyond what they already know. I didn’t like classical music before. I also want to send an unspoken message that people should respect and love each other, be connected. I still run into people who say they don’t like jazz or they don’t like classical music. But that’s because they don’t know it. If you don’t like it, that’s OK, but at least get a taste of it before you say you don’t like it. I want people to see possibilities. For me, it is amazing that I’m playing at David Geffen Hall on the subscription series of the New York Philharmonic and playing written and improvised music the way I hear it. That could be very different from what other classical pianists do.

I’m like a bridge between two genres.

I feel that it is really important for me to keep doing classical, jazz, and Latin music. Even if I can’t play everything perfectly—which I never will—I feel the joy of learning and discovering.

I didn’t start playing classical music until I was 42, and bumped into it by accident. I didn’t have to pursue it, I could have continued being Makoto Ozone the jazz guy. When I got into classical music, I was nobody and had a hard time playing things right. I had to make an effort to get there and that gave me a lot of joy. I tell my students to appreciate what they can’t do and what they don’t know. It’s so important to discover what you can’t do because you have things to work on.

As you get more advanced, you might start to think you are all set, you can make a living. When I went into the classical field, it was new and I was very scared. I’m still scared, but that is how you grow. Don’t be afraid to open a door. In my case I was forced to open it because I accepted a gig to play Mozart. You don’t get opportunities like that too often. When they come, take them.