COURTESY yow kobayashiJazz pianist Makato Ozone appears with the San Francisco Symphony in an unusual classical-improvisaton program featuring works by Gershwin and Ravel.

Makato Ozone jazzes up Gershwin, Ravel

As if performing with jazz greats Gary Burton, Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis were not enough, Japanese-born pianist Makoto Ozone has turned to classical music.

Soon after the New York Times described his performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the New York Philharmonic as a “thrilling, virtuosic and unabashedly personal rendition” that had orchestra members tapping their feet and nodding their heads, Ozone joins the San Francisco Symphony this weekend, under Edwin Outwater, to revisit Gershwin’s masterpiece and explore new territory.

Perhaps for the first time in history, a jazz pianist improvises over, around and through an orchestral performance of Ravel’s “Boléro.” To add to the excitement, symphony principal musicians Mark Inouye (trumpet), Scott Pingel (bass) and Jacob Nissly (percussion) join Ozone to riff with the orchestra on both “Boléro” and Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infant défunte” (“Pavanne for a Dead Infant”). Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” and selections from his Divertimento for Orchestra, complete the delicious evening.

Ozone, whose use of jazz terminology in discussing classical music is a delight, doesn’t expect he’ll need much rehearsal time for “Boléro.”

“The format is very simple,” he says. “It keeps repeating. We just have to figure out where to start, how much to improvise, and when not to improvise. Simple, really.”

As confident as he may sound on the jazz front, Ozone approaches his assignment with great humility. “I’m really cautious about improvising on classical music, because you could really ruin the song,” he acknowledges. “You have to do it in a very thoughtful way. First, you have to understand the composition, how it’s formed, how it’s constructed. And that’s, of course, on top of feeling all the vibes and everything.”

Ozone began his classical-music explorations 10 years ago, when he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 with an orchestra. Reactions were “very black and white.” Half the orchestra members declared, “Wow, that’s not Mozart,” while the others said, “That’s how Mozart would have played if he’d lived today.” Instead of beating a rapid retreat, Ozone engaged his detractors, questioning them about phrasing and expanding his vocabulary.

“Rhapsody in Blue” will reveal yet another vein of Ozone’s musicianship. Not only will he perform all the written parts as they appear in Gershwin’s inherently jazzy score, but he’ll also insert improvisations in key places. In one section, for example, where notes repeat very fast, and the left hand does a rhythm Gershwin borrowed from Latin music, listeners may discover Ozone inserting some Latin improvisation.

“I’m not making up something on my own,” he says. “I’m always improvising based on what’s there.”


Makoto Ozone

with the S.F. Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $15 to $80

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

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