Back when Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone was attending Berklee, he was Gary Burton's prodigy and a frighteningly promising improvisor. Ozone has an unusual ability to suggest odd traits of past masters – the muscularity of Ahmad Jamal, the happy romanticism of Bill Evans, the simplicity of the intricate Joanne Brackeen and, at times, the classic panache of Chick Corea – and weave them into a personable style.
Somewhere along the way, even though all these traits are still evident, he lost his ability to dazzle. He was recorded in Gary Burton's band Real Life Hits (1984) and Whiz Kids (1986) then recorded two moderately interesting albums for Columbia. He kind of disappeared from America for a while, releasing a series of discs for CBS / Sony and Verve in Japan, then finally resurfacing stateside on a duet disc with Gary Burton ( Face to Face 1994). While he never really went away, The Trio is his first in the U.S. since 1985's After.
All in all, it's a nice, straight-ahead date that celebrates the simpatico between the 36-year-old pianist and his aggressively attuned partners: Kiyoshi Kitagwawa on bass and American Clarence Penn on drums (drummer with Cyrus Chestnut and David Sanchez). This is a beautifully integrated trio, and one of which Ozone is very proud (he says so in his notes). Kitagwawa, in particular, spurs Ozone to marvelous heights. The rapport between these two is reminiscent of other piano / bass partners of the past: Ahmad Jamal with Israel Crosby, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro (and Eddie Gomez), Joanne Brackeen with Clint Houston (and Eddie Gomez) and Chick Corea with John Patitucci (and, ah, Eddie Gomez too). Welcome guest John Scofield adds his individual flourishes to three numbers and Ozone pays him the complement of crafting melodies that are very much in the guitarist's strong compositional style ("Lazy Uncle," "Home" and "Stinger").
Unfortunately, as good as it is, The Trio isn't quite as memorable as it could have been. Ozone has an astute way of holding your attention while he expounds and explores. But, like much of his recordings before, when The Trio is finished, so has its impact. Despite crafting a refreshingly original program free of Monk renditions and Cole Porter variations, Ozone's compositions – little more than sketches brought to life with exceptional interaction – probably don't rate a full program. One can only hope this talented and intuitive group gets a hold of stronger material next time around.
Titles: "The Beginning," "Lazy Uncle"-1, "Fairy Dance," "Esperanza," "Home"-1, "Tea For Three," "Stinger"-1, "My Old Book," "A Happy Cat," "Boon-Cha-Cha.(60:04)"