Makoto Ozone is a world-famous jazz musician who crossed over to become one of the world’s most highly regarded classical pianists. As a solo artist, he has played Mozart, Beethoven, and other classical composers with leading orchestras all over the world.

Ozone is coming to New York to play Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic in three performances starting November 2.

He took time to discuss with HuffPost how he made the move from jazz to classical and what he discovered along the way.

Michael: How did you cross over from jazz to classical?

Makoto: The big turning point was about thirteen years ago, in 2003. There was a famous Japanese conductor talking about me on the radio. He said, “Someday I would like to do Rhapsody in Blue with Makoto Ozone.” I thought, “Wow, he mentioned my name.”

A few months later my manager called his orchestra, the Sapporo Symphony, to confirm that they wanted me to play Rhapsody in Blue. It turned out that they wanted me to play Mozart.

Michael: What did you do?

Makoto: We only had six months until the concert and I said to them, “There are a few Mozart concertos. Which one do you want me to play?” They said, “Well, you pick one.” Okay, so I got in my car. I went straight to the record store. I wanted to get the whole Mozart complete concerto CDs. That’s when I discovered he has written 27 concertos. I listened to all 27 concertos in 10 days and then I picked number nine, the E flat major. I played the concert.

I still remember how nervous I was. I could feel the blood pressure, my heart pounding. That’s how nervous I was.

Michael: How did you approach Mozart, since you were a jazz musician and not a classical pianist?

Makoto: The more I studied and practiced the Mozart piece, I said, “Okay, since I’m visiting the classical world, I better be really faithful and keep the integrity of the work.” I didn’t touch any of the written parts. I improvised my own cadenzas, but the rest of the Mozart music, I played completely as written.

To a lot of people, that was a surprise because Makoto Ozone the jazz guy is coming in to do this Mozart. They thought I was really going to change everything, but I didn’t want to disrespect the composer.

Michael: Did you enjoy the experience?

Makoto: Yes! Because I also compose music, I was blown away by how Mozart wrote his music. That was actually the first time I ever really faced his music seriously. It really made me emotional. Harmonically and rhythmically, it just totally blew me away. I was in tears. I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what we do in improvisation.”

Philosophically speaking, when we play jazz, we don’t want to keep surprising the audience. We want to keep the story strong enough. In the end you want to have a little surprise at the end. This whole philosophy of his composing technique was so similar to what we jazz musicians do. The only difference was, it was written out. We don’t write out our music.

This emotional journey was something so impressive and so impeccable for me that I instantaneously fell in love with playing his music. One by one I learned more of his concertos. I also started to get to know other composers like Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Bernstein.

Michael: Tell me more about the differences between performing jazz and classical music.

Makoto: I found more freedom, in a way, in classical music than I find in jazz. In jazz, you basically use everything you want to. You make up the melody and the harmony and the rhythm as you go. When I have been given notes, when I’m reading music, I know the notes I’m going to be playing because they’re already given.

In classical music, my freedom goes underneath the surface of those notes to the question of what kind of sound I want to create, what kind of space I want to create, what kind of mood I want to create. I discovered so much joy of finding that freedom.

Classical music students are taught how to play Mozart or Beethoven in a certain way. Because I have never studied, I have the freedom of making my own Mozart in the most musical way that I can think of.

Michael: What’s the difference between performing with jazz musicians in a quartet or in a group versus the cues you get from an orchestra conductor?

Makoto: When I’m playing jazz, the rhythm comes first. Regardless of everything, you keep the rhythm. Rhythm actually leads the music. In classical music, to me, the melody sort of creates the rhythm. Before we focus on the steady rhythm, you try to phrase the melody. A lot of classical players that I know tell me how they hear music. Most of them say, “Okay, listen to the music very linearly.” We jazz musicians hear a lot of things vertically.

We hear the harmonies and rhythms. It’s very vertical and very boxy. The difference is that in a jazz setting we have the rhythm, a real concrete foundation, a steady rhythm. We call it the groove. If you can’t get the groove happening within the band, you’re in trouble.

The groove in classical music for me is almost like breathing together with orchestra. The melody controls the rhythm. I try not to let the rhythm dictate how the melody should be phrased. That’s how I used to play. That’s why it was so difficult for me at first to play classical music and keep the rhythm all the time.

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