Jazz pianist Makoto Ozone has spent the last 20 years moving between Japan and the United States, so it is perhaps no surprise that his most recent release, New Spirit, moves comfortably between two musical worlds classical and jazz. Though Ozone could rest on a remarkable career in jazz, becoming one of the most recognized Japanese jazz musicians abroad, first with Gary Burton in the 1980s and later with his own trio, he has never stopped pushing the boundaries of his work.

That musical restlessness has led him from the top ranks of American jazz toward a broader musical focus. On the classical-based duet CD in 2002, Virtuosi, Burton and Ozone explored Ravel with jazz improvisation. On New Spirit, Ozone takes this one step further, combining his trio of Clarence Penn and James Genus on bass with a classical string quartet to make a highly unique septet. After a decade of crisp, focused piano trio recordings, this shift may come as a bit of a surprise. Yet Ozone viewed both classical and jazz both as rich sources of expression. For his upcoming tour, his trio will perform together with a string quartet in a unique exploration of what Ozone explained in an interview are distinct, yet extremely complementary approaches to music. His tour comes to Tokyo in late August.

What made you want to move so far into the classical world?

I’ve always wanted to do something like this, but have never had a chance until last year when the director of a classical festival here in Japan asked me to write a piano concerto and then to play it and conduct this full 70-piece Yamagata orchestra. I’d never done that before. I thought then maybe I could do something with the trio since everyone is capable of playing classical music.

The CD comes out sounding like a septet. Usually when strings are added to jazz groups they are just background, or a sweetener.

I didn’t want the strings to be in the background. For that I would have hired about 20 strings to get the right sound. I wanted a string quartet, because it’s such a distinct format. There’s a fullness to the sound, and you can move them around quickly.

An orchestra is like a huge ship: It’s great and gorgeous but you can’t maneuver it around. In a jazz trio, when we play something fast, we need something that can go with us.

At times the trio backs the quartet up.

I wanted to be sure that when the strings are playing a certain part, then the trio could accompany them, too. This format actually puts more pressure on the trio. We really had to rehearse, take it home to do the homework, and spend much more time to record.

You often let the rhythm fall into quieter non-jazz passages.

Those classical guys feel time differently from us. The jazz players just count off and play it with jazz time, but when I first played the melody to the classical guys, I had to play it like a classical musician. I played it according to the melody as if singing and breathing it. I wanted the string players to play with their own feeling for time, and then have the trio follow them. That requires more listening ability and interpretation ability.

The classical string quartets sound so strict about time.

Actually, string quartets like Bartok, Ravel and Beethoven’s, move time around easily and freely. Everyone thinks classical music is so rigid. I found it to be even freer than jazz in certain ways. The notes you play are written, but especially if you’re a soloist, you can go out of the range.

Even within the range, you can do so many things. On the surface, everything is written out, but it’s like an actor who can say one line, like “I hate you” in all these different ways. You can say it in a funny way, or serious, cynical or facetious. Although you’re pumping out the same words, the feelings inside come out so differently.

Often when jazz players turn, or return, to classical music, it’s because they get stuck somehow in jazz and want to change something.

The word “stuck” is accurate. Coming to classical music, you realize there are so many different ways to construct the music. I didn’t even think about the tone of the piano, until I entered that world. I thought a clear sound was enough. My classical teacher, though, has an incredible tone. We’re playing the same instrument, but the difference is remarkable. He told me, don’t think you are playing the piano. Think of it like you’re playing the violin, your hand is the bow, and the keys are strings. I’d never thought like that before.

Do you feel classical harmony opens other options?

Yes, because they don’t have chord symbols, and jazz does. Jazz can be a little boxy. Here are these chords, and you play the improvisation according to what notes are available. Even in modal playing, it’s in that family. So, we say in jazz, you’re playing out. But Ravel was already doing that a hundred years ago. So, it’s not really out, it’s still inside.

And of course, in classical, they used to improvise.

Yes, but they are a lot more specific about interpreting the notes. The classical guys would talk about all these different details of how to play even one line. But jazz musicians are like, well, I’ll worry about it when I get there. I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I get there. The string players would play it twice and ask me which I liked, but I couldn’t hear the difference. So, they’d explain it, and then I could hear it. Even a small change makes the melody much stronger and more dramatic.

In jazz if you do that, then you are stepping too far into someone’s personal field. So, in jazz, you have to say, OK, I’ll let you do your thing.

You’ll do more of this I hope. Definitely. After this I’ve decided I’m going to go back to school to study at Eastman School of Music, just for a semester. I decided I would spend half a year there working on my classical technique and study orchestration, composition and counterpoint. I want to learn how to conduct an orchestra. But basically, I still have to learn how to conduct an orchestra of one — myself!

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