During his years in New York, pianist Makoto Ozone fronted a number of small combos and gigged with such heavyweights as Branford Marsalis, Gary Burton and Christian McBride. But the collaborators he has come back to time and time again are his Japan-based big band, No Name Horses.
This 15-member monster swings with reverence for its forbearers while pushing an experimental agenda that keeps the music fresh and engaging. Ozone is currently touring Japan, playing solo as well as with NHK Symphony Orchestra, and he’ll be showcasing No Name Horses at Blue Note gigs in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka next month. Over the phone, he spoke of the group’s genesis.
“The birth of this band came from a session for singer Kimiko Ito,” Ozone says. “I called a couple of friends of mine and told them to put a band together for the recording. That was 10 years ago.”
The band sounded good and Ozone pushed the members to head out on a short tour, “And here we are after 10 years, and we’re still talking to each other.”
Ozone, now 53, says the members of No Name Horses have since become like family to him.
“Nobody in this band has an ego, that’s what’s so great,” he says. “Usually when you put some great players together, everybody’s looking for solos, but it doesn’t work that way in a big band. Everybody knows the beauty of playing in an ensemble and they don’t care if they get to do a solo.”
The fifth, and most recent, No Name Horses disc, “Road,” is cinematic in scope, the saddle-sore soundtrack to some unmade MGM epic. Composed of only two massive workouts, it juxtaposes Ozone’s whirlwind title cut with a modern arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Tackling such an iconic piece of music was an act of love a long time in the making.
“Mentally, it was a challenge for me to go in and record that piece,” the musician says. “I wrote a big band version of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ about seven years ago, and for this recording I rewrote certain parts. I’m very happy with the way it came out. We played it at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and we shared the stage with Christian McBride’s big band, so there were like 30 people on the stage. We played ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with all my favorite musicians, including Herbie Hancock. He came to me and gave me the nicest compliment about the way my guys played it, so I was very happy.”
Those looking to get a taste of Ozone’s take on Gershwin can catch one of his symphonic dates this week as he pays tribute to the composer under the baton of German conductor Andreas Delfs.
As impressive as his take on “Rhapsody” is, the title cut on “Road” steals the show. A stampede of sounds and emotions, it is officially referred to in the liner notes as “Big Band Symphonic Poem: Road.” While that may sound a bit over the top, it is actually an apt description. An audio biography of the band, it echoes the complex, latter-day Duke Ellington suites and Charles Mingus’ posthumous “Epitaph.”
“This composition is actually about us,” Ozone says. “When we met everybody was so excited, we were in heaven. We were playing every night and hanging out until 4 a.m. And the next day we’d play and we’d go out and hang out like we were 20-year-old students. My wife finally said to me, ‘You’re gonna kill yourself if you keep on doing that. C’mon, grow up.’ ”
While describing the intricacies of the interplay between his brethren on the recording, Ozone says the music strives for more than just pretty sounds.
“I wanted to express something like a message from God saying, ‘Believe in yourself,’ ” he says. “Eric Miyashiro’s trumpet is the voice from heaven and then Eijirou Nakagawa’s trombone, which chases Eric’s line, is like the human voice. (So it’s like) having a conversation between heaven and Earth. Then it goes into the battle part; if you can win the battle for yourself, then you achieve real victory and real freedom.”
Through its tradition of improvisation, jazz is intrinsically associated with freedom. However, it’s also a music very much chained to its past — the shadow of its history often blocking out what newer artists have to offer. Well aware of this, Ozone believes that the music needs to stay out of moldy museums and can remain a vital part of the world we live in today.
“A lot of people today think that jazz is for specialists, something hard to understand. Branford Marsalis and I always talk about this. And a lot of jazz club owners will say, ‘Well you have to play standards that people recognize.’ But look, if you play (Ellington’s) ‘Take the A Train’ for 20-year-old kids, how many of them will recognize it? So the issue is to write strong songs, strong melodies, good harmonies and quality music. That’s why I keep writing my own compositions, especially with a big band. Who would have thought a big band playing original music would be selling out concerts in Japan? We proved it. Because that’s what people wanna hear — we are here to keep on creating new stuff.”
Makoto Ozone plays with the NHK Symphony Orchestra at Katsushika Symphony Hills Mozart Hall in Katsushika-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 25 (3 p.m. start; 03-5670-2222); Fukushima City Concert Hall in Fukushima on Jan. 31 (6:30 p.m. start; ticket prices vary; 024-531-6221); and the Gunma Music Center in Takasaki, Gunma Pref., on Jan. 31 (6:45 p.m. start, ticket prices vary; 027-322-4316). Ozone will play a solo gig at Minatomirai Hall in Yokohama on Jan. 30 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,500 in advance; 045-682-2000). No Name Horses will join Ozone for shows at Blue Note in Tokyo (Feb. 26-28), Nagoya (March 1) and Osaka (March 3-4). For more information, visit www.makotoozone.com.