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Makoto Ozone: Back on the road, with love

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When Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone last visited New York City, a not-so-funny thing happened. He was in the Big Apple in January 2020, planning to visit friends in advance of his next scheduled trip, an April 2020 appearance with his trio at Dizzy's Club.

“I was supposed to be there only for a few days, but I got COVID as soon as I got there. So I had to lock myself up for about 12 days. I had to cancel a gig in Germany because I couldn’t fly out,” Ozone emailed me. He couldn't return that April because his Dizzy's Club gig, and virtually all others in the jazz world, vanished thanks to the pandemic.

Shortly after his 2020 touring plans bit the dust, he started live-streaming solo piano concerts from his Tokyo home. He played every night for 53 consecutive nights. That initiative, “Welcome to Our Living Room,” drew more than thousands of viewers nightly. They included many musician friends and collaborators.

“My wife (Misuzu Kanno), an excellent actor, and I saw this lock-down situation as our chance to thank all of our fans back from all these years for their love and support. But you know what? The hundreds and thousands of comments we received from people gave us so much happiness and power to live on. We wanted to give them our love but we got more back from them.

“We had over 5,000 viewers every night from all over the world, including my dearest musician friends like Bob James, Branford Marsalis, Joey Calderazzo, Jeff 'Tain' Watts, Chick Corea, Peter Erskine, Tommy Smith. Wynton Marsalis called me on my cell during my performance and I stopped playing to answer. I said to the audience, 'Excuse me, I have to take this one!'

“This incredible communication reminded me about the real essence of music, which I first felt when I started to play and perform in front of people: how exciting and fun it was. It is a very simple thing, I play and they enjoy. It totally brought my mind back to that initial humbleness.”

That feeling was also the inspiration for his newly released jazz recording OZONE 60 – Standards (Universal), which was recorded shortly before his 60thbirthday. It supplements a two-disc OZONE 60project that includes both classical and jazz material.

When Ozone returns next week for a two-stop North American mini-tour, it will be his first performance here since before the start of the pandemic.

He'll play Dizzy's Club in Manhattan with his trio (including bassist Yashushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn) on April 20, then they will head north to Toronto for an April 23 performance at Koerner Hall as part of the Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival. The Toronto concert is most fitting because the late piano giant was Ozone's first jazz hero.

Makoto and I emailed back and forth last month as I was preparing a brief preview of his Dizzy's Club gig for the April issue of Hot House. (see below)

Inspired by Oscar Peterson’s formidable sound, Ozone shifted from organ to piano as his instrument of choice at age 12. That was back in 1973 in his native Kobe, Japan. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston and working in vibes player Gary Burton’s band for six years, he carved out his own international career. He’s been a revered educator, performer and bandleader since returning to Japan in 1989. His dynamic playing is marked by deeply intense swing, whether the mood of the moment be breezy or power-driven.

Ozone just completed a tour with Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra. His New York-Toronto itinerary will be preceded by two solo concerts in São Paolo, Brazil.

After the Toronto concert on April 23, he jets to Germany to premiere his full-orchestra arrangement of Mozart's “Piano Concerto No.9 in Eb major” (a.k.a. “Juenehomme”) with the Stuttgart Philharmonie. Then he heads to Hungary for a duet concert in Budapest with vibraphonist Richard Szaniszlo that was planned for 2020, then canceled.

“I am so grateful that I can still play music and share this happiness with the audience,” Ozone says.

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