Another Japanese import success: jazz pianist Makoto Ozone
Boston — Sony, Honda, Kawasaki, Nikon, Yamaha - the pundits of enterprise keep wondering what name will be next on the list of Japanese-exports-turned-American-household-words.
The pundits of jazz think they have the answer: Makoto Ozone.
In the three years since the young pianist came from Kobe, Japan, as a teen-ager to study at the Berklee College of Music here, Ozone (pronounced Oh-zone'-ay) has:
* Won Down Beat magazine's prestigious Student Recording Award in 1982 for the best jazz instrumental performance, given for a series of duo concerts with bassist (and fellow countryman) Keiichi Ishibashi.
* Performed with such highly regarded jazzmen as trombonist Phil Wilson, fluegelhornist Bobby Shew, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - but politely refused an offer last spring to tour with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, in order to complete his academic studies.
* Played a one-hour session at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York in June that won warm praise from the reviewers - and a similar stint at the Berlin Jazz Festival last month that found a usually reserved audience demanding two encores.
* Stretched the vocabulary of critics in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, who have described him as ''phenomenal,'' a ''Wunderkind pianist,'' and ''a near-genius.''
All of which has not, apparently, gone to his head. Seated on a straight chair on a rainy afternoon here recently, the slender young man in jeans and a designer jersey seemed pleasantly unconcerned with fame - or with the prediction (by jazz critic A. James Liska of the Los Angeles Daily News) that ''he seems destined to become a jazz household word.''
What concerns him more is ''the Makoto sound'' - his search, begun in earnest in the past year, for a style of his own. His goal: to develop a style that both builds on and transcends the influence of two significant figures in his life: his father, Minoru Ozone, and the American pianist and jazz legend Oscar Peterson.
''I started out with the organ,'' recalls the younger Ozone, who says that he began playing Jimmy Smith tunes by ear when he was ''3 or 4.'' His father, a pianist and club owner in Kobe who still plays five nights a week, provided an environment in which the musical standard was set not by Oriental music (''I never listened to any Japanese music from birth,'' Makoto says), but by recordings of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and George Shearing.
It never occurred to him not to play as well as the recordings. ''I didn't even think of what's possible for me to do or what's impossible for me to do,'' he recalls - even though it was not until his ninth year that he was tall enough to reach the organ pedals. His parents, however, kept prodding him toward the piano - even lined him up with a piano teacher, who set him to work on scales.
''I hated it,'' he says with a chuckle, ''because I was already able to play jazz on the organ, and the whole idea of learning classical didn't seem like such fun for me.'' After a week, he quit.
Enter Oscar Peterson - on the stage of a local concert hall. A friend gave the 12-year-old Makoto a ticket, which he almost turned down because, he remembers, ''I was strictly into organ; I didn't like piano.'' His first view of the stage that evening raised even more doubts: In keeping with Peterson's full-bodied solo-piano style, it held nothing but a nine-foot grand piano, with neither drum nor bass in sight.
But the music had hardly started, Ozone recalls, when ''I said to myself, 'What? That's impossible!' He was playing the bass line, he was playing the left hand, and his right hand was like a spider running around the keys.'' He recalls that he actually cried at the concert.
He also read the program notes - and discovered that Peterson had solid classical training. So, much to his parents' amazement, their son spent the next two years studying classical piano. He also bought ''about 50'' Oscar Peterson albums, which he ''transcribed'' by ear and made his own. Result: a style so wholly imitative that even during his first years at Berklee the audiences at local Boston clubs loved him because ''I was really sounding like Oscar.''
If his borrowed cloak chafed him less than it might have, that was largely because he saw himself less as a performer than as a composer. He came to Berklee largely to study big-band arranging. (Berklee is one of the preeminent schools of jazz in the nation, which invented such schools. Its 2,500 students include 500 international students from 75 countries.)
He learned it well, studying with such masters as Herb Pomeroy and Michael Gibbs. But he also began listening to such leading contemporary jazzmen as Chick Corea. And earlier this year he began getting together informally with Grammy Award-winner Gary Burton, whose diminutive office at Berklee, overlooking the Prudential Center, has room for little more than desk, vibes, and studio piano.
''Every four or five years,'' Burton says, ''you run into a young player who is obviously a major talent. Makoto is definitely in this category.
''He hasn't settled on what will be his own eventual style,'' adds Burton, who notes that Ozone has embarked on the ''long process'' musicians go through, as they ''lift wholesale chunks from other people and stir them into (their) own pot.''
That new Ozone style, recently on display when he toured the Southwest with Burton last summer, may soon be commercially available on a recording done for Quincy Jones. How does that style differ from the Oscar Petersonisms of old?
Seated in a practice room (at a Yamaha piano, fittingly), Ozone explains by playing. First comes a bit of ersatz Oscar, full of ''stride'' bass, two-octave melody lines, and sharply dissonant minor seconds just below the melody line. Then comes the Ozone - full of pure sixths, shifting rhythms, surprising chord progressions that work without benefit of key signatures, and a faint flavor of Debussy.
What's been the key to finding his own style? ''I was pretty amazed at how you can do without rules,'' he says with a smile, his fingers alternately licking across the upper registers and pumping out barrages of oddly pleasing chords. ''Of course,'' he adds, ''you have to depend on your ear.''
And will this Japanese export return to Japan, where doing ''without the rules'' is not particularly popular?
''No,'' he says, and then he adds, ''I'm planning to make my home in Boston.'' Why? Because ''in Japan people tend to go to a concert because (the performer) has a big name'' - and not always for sheer love of the music.
That ''name,'' he feels, needs to be earned in the United States, whose schools and clubs are still the focus for aspiring jazz musicians around the world.
Is it difficult to be a spontaneous improviser in a culture that appears to favor uniformity and discipline? He slides gracefully around the question for a moment, then comes at it sideways. When most of his boyhood friends were watching television, ''I always went to the stereo,'' he says. ''So I had a kind of heart built up by jazz music,'' he explains, and a taste that centered strongly on swing music.
''That's very rare in Japan,'' he adds simply.