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Virtuosi by Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone

The interesting aspect of Virtuosi, besides its splendiferous music, is how Gary Burton still is creating new forms when he sees a void or a need. One of the true masters of the vibraphone, Burton popularized the four-mallet technique. (Why play with just two mallets when you can create even richer colors with four?) Burton created the ability to play "blue notes" on this instrument of fixed pitches. He became known for disconnecting the vibrato for a purer sound, a holdover from his work with George Shearing. And Burton, before Miles Davis did it, investigated the fusion of rock and jazz.

Now, it seems, Burton has identified an insufficient classical repertoire for the vibraphone. Teaming with his former student, Makoto Ozone, whom he helped groom from an Oscar Peterson imitator to an exceptional jazz pianist, Burton now has identified the duo format (which he and Chick Corea also helped to popularize) as the solution to the problem.

Yes, Virtuosi consists of European, American and Latin classical compositions. Not one tracks includes what is commonly accepted as a jazz tune. However, along the lines of Fred Hersch’s accomplishments in Red Square Blue and The French Collection, Burton and Ozone have blurred the boundaries between the two genres, as they slip between fairly literal performances of the theme and jazz improvisations.

While George Gershwin’s "Prelude 2" is the most often heard composition on the CD, its bluesiness especially appropriate for jazz interpretation, Burton and Ozone’s performance of the third movement of Gershwin’s "Piano Concerto In F" stands out even more. First of all, its scintillating arrangement involves the piano and vibes trading phrases of dramatic rapidity, and, yes, it involves virtuoso performances during the improvisations. Ozone’s seeming effortless in combining rousing stride references with cascading movement reminds the listener of Gershwin’s well-known talent as an entertaining pianist.

In spite of his modesty, it should be noted that Ozone’s style has become quite distinctive and that some of his technique and ideas remain unique to him. In addition, the depth of his involvement in classical music makes it approachable, even to the casual listener.... perhaps because Burton and Ozone don’t consider themselves to be experts on the classical repertoire themselves. In fact, Burton chose the pieces for Virtuosi by ordering various recordings through Amazon.com and winnowing through mounds of music to assemble an assortment that represents the wide-ranging interests of both musicians.

The fire and technical challenge of Rachmaninoff contrasts with the more sedate, drawing-room feel of Brahms. But even wider contrasts occur when Burton decides that the tango of Brazilian composer, Jorge Cardoso, belongs in the repertoire as well, Burton being on record as a major exponent of the underappreciated value of tango master Astor Piazzolla’s work. American Zez Confrey, best known for novelty numbers like "Kitten On The Keys," contributes "Impromptu," during which a chromatically falling chime-lime theme contains in its center a 4/4 blues statement. The CD concludes with Ozone’s tune, "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," a rubato minor-keyed little waltz, which indeed is reminiscent in sections of Ron Carter’s "Little Waltz."

One other thing. Too often, the quality of the instruments used for recordings are ignored, although it’s glaringly obvious when, for example, poor-quality pianos detract from the overall effectiveness of a recording. Hank Jones, in particular, credits Rudy Van Gelder with making available one of the best grand pianos he ever played on. Much of the success of Virtuosi depends, in particular, on the richness of the Yamaha piano’s sound, its lower register coming across as clearly articulated instead of a rumble. The ability of these two musicians to work together so sublimely is a tribute also to the professionalism of Bill Scheniman’s and George Horn’s sound engineering.

Once again, Gary Burton has taken a road less traveled, and his fellow traveler, Makoto Ozone, makes the journey a memorable one. Virtuosi is one of those albums that will become a collectible, like Crystal Silence, because it creates paths for others to follow in the future.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone
  • CD Title: Virtuosi
  • Genre: Other
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Concord
  • Tracks: Le Tombeau de Couperin I – Prelude; Excusions I, Opus 20; Prelude VIII, Opus 32; Milonga; Prelude 2; Sonata K20; Impromptu – From Three Little Oddities; Piano Concerto In F – Movement III; Lakmé Medley: Berceuse/Duettino; Capriccio II, Opus 76; Something Borrowed, Something Blue
  • Musicians: Gary Burton (vibraphone), Makoto Ozone (piano)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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