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An air of great anticipation surrounded the premiere of Makoto Ozone’s very special arrangement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto for The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. This universally popular work, known familiarly as Jeunehomme is here re-imagined by a daring soloist in Makoto Ozone, an exceptional big band in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO), and a courageous leader in director Tommy Smith.

SNJO with Makoto Ozone 'Jeunehomme'Mozart’s devotion to melody and solo virtuosity speak to us from another age, but the ambition and exuberance of this particular composition are instantly recognizable to jazz musicians. Certainly, it contains all of the breath-taking piano improvisation inherent in a concerto that seems designed to impress, dazzle and delight.

In the design, we were trying to present the elegance, timelessness and gentle playfulness of what this big band orchestrated version evokes – now and then. Derek Clark’s monochrome photography was teamed up with no-frills lines and typefaces, making that album visually accessible too.

Makoto Ozone is a virtuoso concert pianist who brings an agile jazz intellect to his arrangement of Jeunehomme, and he approaches the piece very much on his own terms. Speaking on 26th April 2014 at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, Ozone explained that Mozart came immediately to mind while discussing jazz arrangements of suitable classical pieces with Tommy Smith.

There is a lot of joy in Mozart’s music and he was a great improviser”, says Ozone. “… and, of course, jazz is all about improvisation.”

It’s frequently noted that the opening passage of Jeunehomme is unusual in the way that the soloist makes an early entrance. In this jazz setting, the impetuous nature of the youthful Mozart seems even more pronounced. The piano bursts impatiently in on the scene set by an assured jazz orchestra that swings comfortably into the composer’s elegantly economic motif. None of this would be possible without considered forethought from the orchestrator.

There is no doubt that this Jeunehomme is different, but it works beautifully because it is true to Mozart’s commitment to freedom of expression. Artists like Makoto Ozone and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra do not blithely stray from the page; in reality, they use the manuscript as a point of departure towards freedoms that Amadeus would happily endorse.

“The only thing I wanted the band to know was to play what you hear, even though you’re playing the written notes”, recalls Ozone of their preparations. “Every single person understood what I was trying to say and the next time we played, it would come out sounding so right, and yet everyone was making their own sound, with their own voice. That’s how I think the sound of the big band becomes even bigger. When you try to play it ‘right’, the music gets very small.”

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