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Interview with pianist Makoto Ozone

Pianist Makoto Ozone
Pianist Makoto Ozone
Kiyotaka Saito

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Makoto Ozone began musical studies at the organ. The son of jazz pianist, Minaru Ozone, he appeared on Japanese television at the age of six. An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, Makoto made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1983. In April 2014, The New York Times wrote, "Ozone showed how much classically grounded technique can expand a jazz pianist’s freedom: It opens that many more musical worlds to roam,". This Saturday evening in San Francisco, Ozone performs Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' with Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco Symphony (ticket information). Below is a transcript of our recent San Francisco conversation with pianist Makoto Ozone.

EH: What do you remember of your early years, and at what age did you realize that your talent was a bit unusual ?

Ozone: My parents thought I was a pretty good musician at five or six, because I was mostly self-taught. I had learned quite a few pieces by ear, but technically I was limited at that age. One day, my father took me to the dressing room of the organist Jimmy Smith, who was performing in Japan at the time. There was a piano in his room, and he told me to play some blues for him. Some of the musicians who had been playing with him heard what I was doing, and they advised my parents to send me to the United States to further my studies. For my parents, this was probably the first sign of things to come.

I always knew that I would somehow be making my living as a musician, because it was the only thing I did. I had an idea of how good I was, but I also knew how much work I had ahead of me. Playing classical music in front of an audience was really not part of my life plan at all, until about ten years ago when I stumbled into the field by accident.

EH: Oscar Peterson is someone who means a great deal to you. Looking back, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this wonder of the music world and the role he’s played in your development. Has your opinion of his music changed over the years ?

Ozone: Oh, no, no, no. He is still the one and only for me. I know there are different opinions out there about his music, but for me, nothing has changed. The first time I saw Oscar Peterson was when I was twelve, and I wasn't interested in the piano at all. My mother had given me a book on piano-playing years earlier, and I hated it. At the time, I thought piano-playing was for girls! (laughs) Well, my uncle had tickets to an Oscar Peterson concert one day, and he gave me his ticket. I didn’t even want to go, but I’m so glad I did. Oscar came out, played some solo works, and I said to myself, “What the hell ?! How is that even possible ?!” I felt I had been struck by lightning – I couldn’t move! I went home and told my mother to find me a piano teacher, immediately (laughs).

Later on, I released an album as a tribute to Oscar, and when he came to perform in Japan, I was to interview him for a jazz magazine. I was so nervous to meet him. Well, we sat down - my wife was there as well - and I was so nervous I couldn’t even speak! My wife said, “Please say something! He’s your hero!”. The interview, luckily, went very well, and we became friends, exchanging e-mails back and forth. Oscar graciously invited me to his home in Toronto.

I was so honored to play on his Bösendorfer, which was in his basement. Imagine playing on Oscar Peterson’s piano with him standing right next to you! He then said, “Makoto, let me play you my latest composition,”. So he sat down and played the beautiful ballade just for me. Can you imagine that ? I was in heaven! He was a very, very sweet man with a wonderful sense of humor. He was very serious about making people happy with his music, and it’s something I respect very much to this day. I’m still in-touch with his wife, Kelly, and we’ve talked about doing a project together, a tribute to Oscar - after all, if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be a pianist today.

EH: What are your thoughts on Art Tatum, whom Peterson knew and had the utmost respect for ? I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Thelonius Monk and whether he’s had an influence on your own development.

Ozone: Interesting that you bring up that name! You know, when I met Oscar, at one point, he took my hand, looked at it, and said, “Makoto, your hand looks just like Art Tatum’s hand,”. I said, “Oh my God, Oscar, you mean a smaller version of it, right ?”. We both laughed! I was in heaven (laughs). I told Oscar that I actually preferred him to Art Tatum. Everything of Oscar’s is so clean, so crisp. Tatum was absolutely brilliant, very elaborate, fast and innovative, but I often hear the same passage, the same runs – which to me, means he was letting his hands do a lot of the work. When I told Oscar this, he looked at me, a little puzzled (laughs).

I didn’t appreciate Monk’s music until I was much older, actually. Monk was so sure of what he wanted and what he was hearing. I grew up transcribing records, and at a certain point, you learn the harmonic structure – what’s right, what’s wrong, etc. – and Monk had such strong conviction of what he wanted to hear, finding his own path, his own words to express what he wanted to say, and that’s something I respect a lot.

EH: Kirill Gerstein recently said that there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to devote oneself to both jazz and classical art forms. Have you experienced a similar struggle?

Ozone: Oh, Kirill is an unbelievable guy. I heard him recently in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and it was just incredible. My experience is a little different from his, but he’s absolutely right about that point. It’s very difficult to find the time to do both.

I stumbled into classical music somewhat by accident, actually. There’s a wonderful conductor here in Japan who’s now the head of the NHK symphony, and he mentioned on NHK radio one day that he would ‘love to do Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Makoto Ozone’. I had never met him, but not long after, I received an offer to perform with him and the Sapporo Symphony. Based on my understanding of what I heard on the radio, I took the offer.

A few months later, before the concert, my manager told me, “Actually, I think they want you to play Mozart, not Gershwin,”. After going back and forth a bit, it was decided that I would pick a Mozart concerto that I wanted to play. At the time, I didn't know a single one, so I went straight to the record store, bought a CD-set of the 27 concertos, and spent the next ten days listening to all of them (laughs).

In the end, I chose No. 9. You can imagine how nervous I was to play in front of a classical audience. But somehow, the conductor liked it a lot, especially my improvisations, and word got around in Japan. I would then meet another conductor, who wanted me for a concerto, and that’s how I got started. My classical repertoire has grown from Beethoven to Shostakovich, and I’m currently working on Prokofieff’s No. 3. That concert is in four weeks, and it’s just a big black cloud over my head right now (laughs). I do consider myself very lucky to have these wonderful opportunities, though.

EH: Both jazz and classical art forms demand skilled musicians and listeners alike. How do we explain the importance of these traditions to the younger generation ? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the state of both, if you don't mind.

Ozone: Both art forms seem to be going through something very similar right now. There are those who tend to believe that classical and jazz music are for those who are special, those who are more knowledgeable and more experienced, but it’s simply not true. Mozart was playing his piano at the bar, trying to talk to the girls, etc. People have to realize that from the audience’s point of view, it’s music, it’s something you have to feel. And if you feel nothing, it's probably the fault of the performer. We have to project to the audience, to make them happy, which goes back to what Oscar Peterson believed so strongly. I want people who have never listened to live jazz or live classical music, to not be intimidated by the experts. Pick up a ticket and feel whatever you feel.

What’s happened now is that jazz and classical music have become special music for special people, and that’s totally wrong. I’ve been playing jazz since I was five. How much could I have possibly known at that age ? I play with Branford Marsalis quite a bit, and we talk about this issue sometimes. He once said to me, “There are so many great players out there, but a limited number of musicians,”. I totally understand what he means. There are so many who play at a high level, they do great things, they’re so intellectual, but what’s the effect ? You can make people cry by playing a simple B-flat major chord if you transmit it from your soul directly to the audience. This is what we need from musicians.

EH: In your opinion, what is the role of the music critic in today’s world of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter ?

Ozone: I think we really need their help to bring people into the concert halls. Music can now be downloaded, which is great, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as a live performance at all. I don’t particularly like it when critics try to explain the music to the audience, which I think turns people off. Music is music, and I try not to explain too much either, whether I’m playing works by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Béla Bartók. I might tell some story about Miles, about how we met at a Montreal hotel, etc. which piques their interest, but music is something you have to feel. I love playing with orchestra because the feeling of being together with eighty musicians is so powerful. This is what readers need to read about, and what might bring them back to the concert hall.

EH: I would love to hear your thoughts on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which you’ll be performing in San Francisco on July 5. There are also two works of Ravel that you’ll be improvising on: Boléro and Pavane pour une enfante défunte.

Ozone: Let’s start with the Ravel! It was actually Edwin’s idea to improvise on those two particular works. He explained his vision to me over the telephone, and it became very clear to me what we had to do. The final product, of course, will be determined on-stage. For Boléro, the jazz part will be played on top of the orchestral part, and it has to be done very carefully, otherwise, the piece will be ruined.

Rhapsody in Blue is not an easy piece to perform, and I play everything as it’s written. I’m a composer myself, and if I’m going to change anything, it has to be better than what’s written. I was once working on a Beethoven concerto, and I was looking at one of Beethoven’s cadenzas. His music seemed to be speaking to me, daring me, saying, ‘Go ahead and try to find a better note’. Of course, I tried, and I didn’t change a thing (laughs). I have so much respect for what the composer has written, so I play the written parts 100% as they are. Gershwin’s music requires a rhythmic approach, and there are rhythmic motifs everywhere, some of which I can improvise on. The piece is almost like a collection of short songs, so there are certain parts relative to jazz that I can expand on.

EH: Which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Ozone: Oh, I’ve only played one, so it’s definitely the hardest: Op. 10 No. 4 (laughs).

EH: Thank you very much for taking the time, Makoto. Welcome, and best of luck later this week in San Francisco.

Ozone: Oh, thank you so much, Elijah. It was wonderful speaking with you!

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