Japan adds flavor
to jazz fest

The appeal of jazz is truly worldwide -- just ask Makoto Ozone and Tiger Okoshi.

The two Japan-born veterans of the piano and trumpet, respectively, will lend their talents to "International Jazz" night tomorrow at the Blaisdell Concert Hall as part of this year's Hawaii International Jazz Festival. With backing from Hawaii residents Noel Okimoto and John Kolivas, Ozone and Okoshi will showcase the music that matters the most to them, with Okoshi doing a special tribute to Louis Armstrong with Hawaii's very own Gabe Baltazar.

Both Japanese musicians now live and work out of New York City. Ozone usually records and performs with his own trio and just finished up his latest album for the Verve label -- the 17th in his career as a leader.

"I moved back to Japan and lived there from 1989 to '99, by choice really, even though my green card had expired. Ironically, after I signed a contract with JVC records in Japan, my new green card arrived!"

When Ozone moved back to New York City, the self-taught pianist started to delve into the classical field.

"Back in Japan, I would sometimes play concertos with orchestras. In fact, I played a Mozart piano concerto for the first time in Japan.

Tiger Okoshi, one of two Japan-born veterans, is a regular visitor to the jazz festival.

"I've been commissioned to write and conduct a concerto, and this is something so new to me that I've actually been taking piano lessons. I noticed that a lot of jazz musicians don't have this quality that classical ones have, like paying attention to the depth of sound and how to phrase things. Jazz musicians tend to play more complex rhythms and harmonies, but don't necessarily care about the color of the sound.

"When I decided to do the concerto and take lessons, these totally new exercises that I'm now doing helps my ear and develops my style so much so that I apply it to jazz playing. People have told me that they've noticed the change in my sound, particularly on ballads, songs with written melodies. I think that's great and that sound is evident on my upcoming CD."

Ozone originally took up the piano at age 12, but gravitated to his father's Hammond B-3 organ that was in the house.

"At that time, I didn't like the piano, I didn't like classical music, but Uncle Jimmy (Smith) on the Hammond I liked. But it was after hearing Oscar Petersen that brought me back to the piano, and I would later make a record in tribute of him.

Ozone also made his name as a duet partner with vibraphonist Gary Burton, who is now part of the administrative staff at the Berklee School of Music.

"There was an immediate chemistry between us, a special rapport where it was so easy to feel where we could go musically. In fact, our latest collaboration, 'The Virtuosi,' was nominated for a Grammy -- in the classical field!"

Pianist Makoto Ozone makes his debut at the jazz festival.

TIGER OKOSHI, when compared to first-time fest participant Ozone, has been pretty much a regular guest, "sixth or seventh time" by his count. And Hawaii was his first memorable entry into the United States.

"The first time was in 1972. My wife and I came here for our honeymoon. I was 22 years old back then and we fell in love with the islands. Actually, one of the reasons of having a honeymoon in the U.S. was to take one lesson from a trumpet teacher at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. But back then, he didn't teach much as talk about his experiences in music."

When Okoshi graduated from Berklee five years later, he also left with a nickname that has stuck with him for all of his career.

"I got the name Tiger when I became a Berklee student. I was born with the name Toru, which sounds like 'Tolu' to those who don't speak Japanese. A piano player ahead of me, a guy who used to gig with Ron Carter and was one of the first Chinese players, asked me if it was Toru or Tolu. Finally, he gave up and asked me what year I was born in and, according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the Year of the Tiger.

"I just hated the nickname at first, but then I thought, wait a minute, this is a great start to my new life. People will ask 'What does he want to do? What will he to want to be?' So Tiger Okoshi was born in Boston."

Even though Okoshi's name has been synonymous with variations of fusion jazz over the years ("I never considered myself a straight-ahead jazz player"), it was an American icon that inspired him to pick up the horn in the first place.

"I saw Louis Armstrong when I was 13 years old. It was in a concert hall in Osaka, filled with 3,000 people and so many Americans that I ever saw in one place. At the time, I didn't know who he was, but my girlfriend at the time, who used to live in the U.S., said I should see him.

"But before we went, I looked in my English dictionary and saw his name as divided into the words Arm-Strong, and was impressed by the strength of his name. Six months later, I picked up the trumpet for life. I wanted to be painter before that, but I didn't believe what I encountered that night. The atmosphere was magical -- so much so that, after I bought the concert program, I cut out a picture of Satchmo's big smiling face and put it on the wall so I could look at him every night."

Okoshi also wanted to write a letter to Armstrong at the time but didn't get around to doing something to honor his name until Okoshi recorded and released "Echoes of a Note."

"The echo is me and the note is him. Not only was it a musical tribute, but I also wrote in the liner notes, 'Dear Pops, you don't know me, but you're in me.'"

And even though Okoshi found his voice through the inspired fusion jazz ventures of Chick Corea, Miles Davis and Weather Report, when festival director Abe Weinstein asked Okoshi what he wanted to do for this year's festival, Okoshi said he wanted to do a tribute to Pops.

"I like how Louis Armstrong treated the trumpet as a singing instrument," he said. "And while I can't sing anywhere near the way he did, we'll do my arrangements of such songs of his as 'St. Louis Blues' and 'Hello Dolly,' and also maybe one or two of my originals.

"The Hawaii audience is important to me -- people really know me there -- so I thought they would understand my bringing something personal this year," Okoshi said.

10th Jubilee Hawaii
International Jazz Festival

Featuring Tiger Okoshi and Makoto Ozone and the group Gypsy Pacific

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $20, $35 and $40

Call: 526-4400 or 591-2211

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