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

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, www.sfsymphony.orgartsClassical Music & OperaEdwin OutwaterMakoto OzoneSan Francisco Symphony

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a COVID-19 update at the City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site in April. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Gavin Newsom under COVID: The governor dishes on his pandemic life

By Emily Hoeven CalMatters It was strange, after 15 months of watching… Continue reading

Deputy public defender Chris Garcia outside the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has… Continue reading

Hyphen hosts a group show at Space Gallery in San Francisco in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Albert Law/Pork Belly Studio)
What’s in a name? Asian American magazine fights to keep its identity

An investor-backed media group laid claim to the moniker of SF’s long-running Hyphen magazine, sparking a conversation about writing over community history

A warning notice sits under the windshield wiper of a recreational vehicle belonging to a homeless man named David as it sits parked on De Wolf Street near Alemany Boulevard on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. A proposed SF Municipal Transportation Agency law would make it illegal for overnight parking on the side street for vehicles taller than seven feet or longer than 22 feet. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fight over ‘poverty tows’ heats up

‘What can we do to ensure the vehicle stays in the hands of the owner?’

Crab fisherman Skip Ward of Marysville casts his crab net out off a pier near Fort Point. (Craig Lee/Special to The	Examiner)
San Francisco came back to life, and we captured it all

Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, the bestselling authors… Continue reading

Most Read