Makoto Ozone

“Jazz” (1954), by Yoshida Chizuko.
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By LUCAS FIASCHETTI ESTEVEZ*

Comment on the performance of the Japanese musician at Sala São Paulo

On April 16, Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone performed at Sala São Paulo, opening a series of attractions at the International Piano Festival, FIP 2022.[I] This is the musician's fourth time in Brazil, who has built an intimate and fruitful relationship with OSESP (São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra), with which he had already played pieces by George Gershwin - such as the "Concerto in F", in 2013, and “Rhapsody in Blue”, in 2014. In his last passage, in 2016, he performed with his band “The Trio”, consisting of bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn. At the time, specialized critics celebrated him for moving easily through the so-called “classical music” and jazz repertoires. However, this year's performance showed that such characterization is not enough to understand Ozone's music. This time, the pianist played a selection of his own compositions taken from different moments of his extensive work, exposing his virtuosity and versatility.

Makoto Ozone was born in 1961 in the city of Kobe, in a context of intense development of the Japanese jazz language. Flooded by the North American genre in the post-war period, the country was, throughout the 1950s, taken over by big band and other types of ensembles, which are very much influenced by the language of New Orleans jazz and the swing. However, a more modern trend was also observed in that music scene – under the influence of bebop and cool jazz, local musicians also knew how to absorb new textures, arrangements and instrumentations into their music and venture into possibilities still little explored in the West. Of note, for example, are trumpeter Terumasa Hino, saxophonist Hidehiko Matsumoto, drummer Hideo Shiraki and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose debut album, Toshiko's Piano (1953). According to Ozone himself, Akiyoshi exerted a strong influence on his musical formation.[ii]

Although he began his studies in his country of origin, Makoto Ozone completed his studies in North American soil, making it clear that national borders matter little in his music. The contact with American jazz was very early: according to himself, the choice of the piano resulted from the contact he had with Oscar Peterson as a child – a musician whom he paid homage to in his album Dear Oscar (1998)

Over decades of intense record production, Makoto Ozone has known how to work both in small and large forms, as in the fruitful partnership with vibraphonist Gary Burton in Virtuous (2003) and on the album Jungle (2009), recorded with the big band No Name Horses. Throughout his career, he composed more than 300 pieces, including a symphony and a piano concerto. Since 2003, when he was invited to play Mozart for the first time, he has approached concert music and started to incorporate new elements into his unique style.

Perhaps because it is a non-representational art in itself, music imposes meanings and expectations on the place it echoes – it reflects part of the image it does not have. On Saturday, before the first notes broke out, the silence of the space had a ritualistic and sacred quality. Accustomed to receiving the massive mass of the orchestra, the stage occupied by the solitary piano gave the environment that typical and exacerbated contrast between the grandeur of the space and the emptiness that tries to fill it, an imbalance that dissolves when the music begins. Makoto Ozone opened his presentation with gotta be happy, a song filled with the most multiple and sometimes disparate references, which already pointed to the general spirit of his performance.

In the first bars, we have a clear melody with a bucolic tone, with long ascending and descending scales, in an unhurried touch that sometimes reminds us of Debussy – something also present in Time Thread, played further on. When Makoto Ozono seemed about to surrender to a specific form, the music that opened the night deviated from easy paths from an abrupt break that introduced a syncopated rhythm, in a cadence that is very reminiscent of the central theme of fat breast (1969), by Herbie Hancock.

In the meantime, while the left hand repeated the chords that organized the music, the right hand glided over almost all the keys, in scales that sounded like a reinvented blues and full of dissonances and tensions. By conscientiously presenting his compositions, Makoto Ozone hinted at the almost handcrafted making of his music, externalizing not only his artistic work, but also, in Jacques Rancière's terms, something beyond himself, of a collective character - that kind of of “re-sharing” the sensible[iii] which shifts the praxis from solitary composition to public performance without intermediaries.

Throughout the presentation, other musical references were placed in constant tension, reformulation and even conflict. Struttin' in Kitano it sounds both like Scott Joplin ragtime and an elaborate Duke Ellington tune. oberek it has the rhythm of flamenco and the expressive power of Chopin's mazurkas. lily flowers, a bossa from beginning to end, seems to have come out of a more “jazzified” Tom Jobim. Already in Where Do We Go From Here? we have a less complex structure, but not so easy to execute. Written after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Makoto Ozone made a point of playing it in memory of the victims of a current tragedy, the war in Ukraine. Unlike the tense and voluminous version of this song on the album First Decade (2006), here the unaccompanied piano voice seems to have made even more sense.

Based on an analysis of his extensive discography and live performances, we could risk characterizing Makoto Ozone's music as one that is based on a “radical hybridity” of forms, in which not only the boundaries between genres are undo to the detriment of the exploration of new sound possibilities, as well as the very idea of ​​hybridity is revoked as an anachronistic category. Throughout his compositions, it is noted how the various references exposed throughout the bars do not settle as an addition or overlapping of layers, but cohabit in order to bring up figures, harmonies and melodies hitherto submerged, being indifferent to the internal logic. of the work, which is the origin or birthmark of each reference brought to the ball.

It is in this supposed impudence that we find the radicality, the immanence of the musical material and the search for the immanent meaning of each work. In an increasingly regressive and standardized musical scenario, taken by pre-established forms, renouncing the pretension of reaching a final form represents a potent countertrend. Instead of hierarchizing the influences he received from different musical genres, Makoto Ozone treats them as equals – primacy is given to constructive problems that abdicated the fetish of pure form and the classifications of tradition, fixed ideals so foreign to jazz.

Makoto Ozone's version of the jazz hit Autumn Leaves, fourth track from the aforementioned album Dear Oscar (1998), allows us to glimpse how the pianist is inspired by tradition and the canon, working without any dogmatism – especially if we compare his version with Peterson’s, in Oscar Peterson Trio (1960). Less frantic and syncopated than the North American, but more attentive to the texture of each passage, Makoto Ozone clings to the theme either as a distant and diffuse echo, or as a master line to be followed in a more disciplined way. Here and in so many other moments of his work, improvisation is the way in which musical problems are resolved or sink even further in a desperate search for conclusion.

In this search, Makoto Ozone generally avoids shortcuts, surrounds dissonances and reaches them as a point of no return, as a renewed expression of a diabolos in music. One more example of this modus operandi of the pianist can be seen in his interpretation of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), performed in Hamburg at the end of last year with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. In this excellent performance, Ozone temporized the piece with typical elements of jazz improvisation practice. post-bebop, just as Gershwin had done by enervating his music with the jazz trends of the early part of the century.

Of all the songs performed by Makoto Ozone at Sala São Paulo, need to walk stood out. Defined by himself as a “very strange blues”, the work subverts the cyclical logic of this genre, almost obsessively inserting unforeseen elements that, little by little, build up in a kind of development in which the return to the main theme is always more vigorous and potent than the previous resumption.

Already in Pandora, another highlight of the night, is an example of Makoto Ozone's high level as a songwriter. With a suggestive title, its journey leads to quite unexpected regions – from a slow beginning, it unfolds into a nocturnal one that results in brutal dissonances and extreme polyphony. Sometimes it's hard to believe that all that sound comes from a single instrument. After the apex, it returns to the theme exposed at the beginning and slowly tends to its own dissolution, to silence.

Although performed in an almost sacred atmosphere, the disrespect for prior classifications and the suspicion of the authority of the written music so characteristic of Makoto Ozone rest not on an uncritical pastiche, but on conscious musical decisions and successively taken risks. As a good jazz musician, Ozone knows that a “wrong” note can be a previously unforeseen opportunity to open new paths, without any indication of destiny. However, to proceed in this way without falling into a mere randomness of choices, it is necessary to be intensely imbued and familiar with the various possibilities and twists of the musical language – in a kind of preparation such as that of repentistas and rappers who pursue rhymes for their songs.

In other words, Makoto Ozone operates as the Benjaminian figure of the collector of books, who, when unpacking his library, sees each of his volumes read as spirits that resided within the collector himself, and not the other way around. Based on such an image, we could say that Ozone makes its relationship with tradition – be it classical, popular or jazz – that of possession, understood as the “most intimate relationship that one can have with things: not that they are alive within from him; he is the one who lives inside them”.[iv]

In short, contradicting the interpretation that I initially formulated, it is possible to say that Makoto Ozone gives a new expression to that tendency to kaleidoscopically incorporate previously established references and canons, denying them in order to produce something new. In this case, beyond any hybridity, it would be better to describe Ozone as an agnostic of forms – as one who, rejecting pre-existing ideas, formulates his own questions and does not always offer answers.

If art, in Marcuse’s terms, is inevitably “part of what exists and only as part of what exists does it speak against what exists”, it is precisely on this same contradiction that Makoto Ozone’s music is based – a radical agnosticism that is based on stands up against the tyranny of form and gives “to familiar content and familiar experience” that “power of distancing” through which “form becomes content and vice versa”.[v] Instead of adding Latin rhythm to jazz and fusing the “classic” to the popular, Ozone challenges them in an unresolved tension. Thus, he rejects “the easy promises”, refuses “the relieving happy ending”[vi], in an operation of mimesis and anthropophagy.

In his music, conventions are dissolved to make room for what is sometimes paradoxically excluded from the art world: creation. Constantly renewed by the immediacy of execution, written music becomes the object of the musical subject, a sensitive matter at the mercy of the imponderable, without axiomatic or formal impositions.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.

 

Notes


[I] Presentation available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22YwxKRzbws&ab_channel=Osesp-OrquestraSinf%C3%B4nicadoEstadodeS%C3%A3oPaulo

[ii] “He Hears a Rhapsody” – Interview by Makoto Ozone, available at:  https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-today/spring-2018/makoto-ozone

[iii] RANCIÈRE, Jacques. The sharing of the sensitive: Aesthetics and politics. Publisher 34, 2009, p.65.

[iv] BENJAMIN, Walter. Unpacking My Library: A Discourse on Collecting. In: BENJAMIN, Walter. one-way street. Selected Works, Vol. II. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2012, p.241.

[v] MARCUSE, Herbert. the aesthetic dimension. Lisbon: Editions 70, p.44.

[vi] Ibid., p.48.

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