The Bobby Rock Newsletter #104 (7-31-23) - Virtuoso
The Bobby Rock Newsletter #104 (7-31-23) - Virtuoso
Hello, my friends -
I am back on the road in Bay City, Michigan this weekend as I sit down to put this thing together. Been quite a couple weeks since our last full issue of the Newsletter, so let's dive right in...
In This Issue:
- On the Road with Lita Ford:: A bit about my training/playing/traveling experience in Bay City this past weekend...
- Virtuoso: Seeing one of my most influential virtuosos 40+ years later, and a reflective walk down "Virtuoso Lane"...
- An "Appetite For Destruction" and the Art of Infrequent Indulgences - My eternal quest for the greatest vegan donuts... and other "food-like substances" we probably should avoid outright: but what fun would that be?
On the Road with Lita Ford:
7-29-23 - Bay City, Michigan
In six impressions or less, here is a quick encapsulation of my Bay City, MI weekend, where I played with Lita Ford at Veteran's Memorial Park (with Dokken also on the bill).
The first order of business on show day (after an hour or two of in-room warm-ups on the practice pad) was a lengthy run up and down the Saginaw River, which was a spit's distance from the hotel. There were some cool pathways and several bridges to cross, and the weather was spectacular, although a bit on the windy side:
After soundcheck, we had a bit of downtime back at the hotel to grab some food, then we returned to the venue for the show. It was a fun set with a great crowd. Here's a drummer's perspective pic/vid from the set and solo...
And here's an audience-perspective shot of a bit of the solo that my longtime friend, Jim Mooradian, happened to capture...
After the show, I was more than ready to dive into my black bean burger and salad... but I leaned into a little delayed gratification, had a Clif bar instead, and managed to gut out a decent workout at the hotel gym. Here was the quick report:
(BTW, I will typically repeat this superset sequence for upwards of 25 minutes, after a warm-up, as opposed to counting a total number of sets. I find I can “lose myself” in the process a bit easier that way. All in—with a couple other supersets—I was in and out of the gym in 55 minutes.)
Early the next morning, it was a two-hour ride back to the Detroit airport. Here's what that looked like (along with some commentary I left on social):
The morning after… en route to the Detroit airport with stripper poles and disco lights. The Dream continues… :-)
There are plenty more of these kinds of days on the summer calendar! Stay tuned...
Revisiting an Inspirational Favorite
I have always been fascinated with the concept of virtuosity: this idea that a virtuoso—through thousands of hours at their craft in the practice room and on the stage—moves through life with a virtual superpower of excellence, raising the consciousness and stoking the imaginations of audiences the world over. Sound grandiose? Sure. But that is, to me, what has made the pursuit so alluring. What if I could harness such a superpower one day? was a question I often asked myself in the early days.
For me, there have been many virtuosic influences through the years: a number of different drummers (as you might expect), plus many others, on different instruments, in various genres of music, from Coltrane to Liszt. However, there are three who have had the most inspirational impact on me, probably because of the formative time in my life when I had the most exposure to them: Drummer Buddy Rich (no surprise there), guitarist Eric Johnson (who would steer me in the direction of adventurous instrumental music via a power trio), and pianist Makoto Ozone (for reasons we will touch on today). These "Big Three" were top-of-mind during those formative years from 17 to 19—as a senior in high school, on through my first three semesters at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Last week, I had a chance to see Makoto play live for the first time in over 40 years, so I wanted to revisit my fascination with this incredible musician from the vantage point of being a fellow student at Berklee. (More on Rich and Johnson another time, perhaps...)
The Makoto Magic Factor
In recent times...
From the start of my first semester at Berklee in the fall of '81, there was always a magical buzz about the great Makoto Ozone and his unparalleled abilities as a pianist. He was an upperclassman who lived off campus, so in-person sightings were rare. But anyone who had been at Berklee for a minute had a story about seeing him play and how intense he was. One of my faves had to do with an eyewitness account of a rehearsal one afternoon. Makoto was playing in one of the school's most prestigious ensembles, and charts were handed out for an incredibly challenging arrangement that everyone had to sight-read on the spot. At one point, there was this insanely intricate 8-bar unison passage that, essentially, required everyone to hang on for dear life and try to make it through. As the bars ticked by, it seemed that, one by one, everyone fell off the page... except Makoto, who was the proverbial "last man standing," methodically nailing the final few bars of the passage by himself. Legendary shit!
From Keiichi's YouTube channel... Makoto on the right.
I finally had a chance to see him play in person during his highly-anticipated Fall semester concert at the Berklee Performance Center. It was called "The Duo," and featured Makoto with a smokin’ hot bassist named Keiichi Ishibashi. The place was jam-packed, and I will never forget seeing this guy play for the first time. After the duo took the stage to thundering applause, a 20-year-old Makoto sat calmly at the piano as Keiichi grabbed his upright. A strange, respectful silence fell over the crowd, like we were about to watch someone juggle chainsaws. I remember feeling the empathetic weight of great expectation on my shoulders, but on his behalf, like... how could he possibly live up to the mythical projections that had been placed upon him?
And then, with a nod of confirmation between them, they eased their way into the first tune. Makoto had an uncommonly Zen presence about him on stage: casual, collected, unaffected. He played through the head of the tune with a relaxed sense of restraint, dropping hints here and there of a rich knowledge of harmony and chord structure. Then, as he kicked into his first solo chorus and the bass sprang into motion with a more pronounced walking pattern, things began to escalate fast.
Makoto's phrases swung with a fiery confidence and authenticity that belied his age and unassuming appearance. We were soon off to the races with these scorching fast, Oscar Peterson-inspired be-bop lines and double-handed octave riffage, and even some crazy-ass ragtime madness that ventured near Art Tatum-land! It was an astounding display of technique, delivered with a brash, adrenalized urgency that bordered on reckless at times... but remained poised. It was adventurous... but also audacious. And man, was it ever inspiring. The place would just fall out with howling and clapping after every solo he took. (And Keiichi was no slouch, either, by the way!)
But don't take my word for it. I was diligent about bootlegging cassettes of each of the major recitals he did, starting with the two Duo performances (Fall 1981, and Spring 1982). Not long ago, though, I stumbled across a relatively recent YouTube audio of the Duo's closing number for their Spring '82 concert, the day before Makoto's 21st birthday. It is an absolutely blistering version of "Bye Bye Blackbird." Scope it now! (And if you think the first half is over-the-top, wait for the second half!)
Courtesy of Keiichi's YouTube channel
My favorite Makoto performance, I think, is the fall 82' recital he did six months later with the iconic trombonist (and Berklee faculty member), Phil Wilson. I also had this one on cassette. But, a few years back, I ran across it on Spotify! It turns out that this recorded performance was released as a full-on album. Again, this is must-hear magic!
Seek this one out!
The Fork in the Road
So... we have a 21-year-old virtuoso jazz pianist from Japan who fucking annihilates any audience you put in front of him. What happened after graduation? That, to me, has always been the mystery.
Don't get me wrong. Makoto went on to have a storied career. He did a number of records as a solo artist, played and recorded with scores of other prominent musicians, and has wound up some four decades later on top of the proverbial food chain, currently splitting time between the worlds of jazz and classical, as he concertizes with the likes of major orchestras and various jazz legends, including the Marsalis brothers. All is grand.
That said, to my knowledge—and I say this as a bewildering observation, not a criticism—he has never played like that since he left college. I'm sure his musical journey has been the kind of study in maturation needed to get him where he wound up. Still, through the filter of a 19-year-old me.... and, well, okay... I suppose even a 60-year-old me... I was always mystified that he didn't take his "vaudeville virtuoso" thing into his post-college career, with all guns a-blazing, even as Boston's "jazz elite" was often critical of him for being a supposed Oscar Peterson clone, or as "needing to find his own voice." (He's 21, motherfuckers! I wanted to tell them. He will find his voice soon enough. For now, he plays like Oscar Peterson on amphetamines. Let this young man wail!) Instead, it appears he opted to collaborate with the "elite" and take a sharp left turn away from anything ultra chopster-heavy, and more in the direction of the tastefully restrained, post-fusion subculture of understated 80's jazz cats.
Again... what the fuck do I know? But still...
Okay, so now, we jump ahead 41 years. My girl surprised me with tickets to see "the man" last week. Here's what I had to say about it on social:
So great to see pianist Makoto Ozone last night with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. Back in our Berklee days over four decades ago, Makoto was definitely the “big man on campus,” frying brain cells with his otherworldly chops and limitless command of his instrument. It was always an event for me and my classmates to see him perform live each semester. In fact, these were some of the most jaw-dropping performances I have ever seen, even to this day.
During the set...
And while I have kept up with his recording career through the decades, last night was the first time I had seen him play live since the old days. Wow. The maestro continues to astound… especially given the hybrid, jazz/classical context of his Gershwin treatment. We will not likely ever hear “Rhapsody in Blue” performed like that again!
Indeed, it was great to see Makoto play again. And yes, it all worked out. While I secretly fantasized about hearing him step off into a 16-bar, face-melting trip down memory lane at some point, Makoto (probably wisely) stayed on-brand and delivered a polished, seasoned performance for the ages. It was truly masterful and, of course, extremely musical!
And yes, it's also great that the early part of his legacy is "on tape" for us to enjoy, as well.
Long Live Makoto!!!
An "Appetite For Destruction"
We finish up this week with a quick, contemplative study on indulgence. And let me be clear, I do enjoy indulging in fine, vegan junk food from time to time... for those who think I never "falter." The key? Infrequency, rather than in moderation. As I've said before, moderation is a dangerous word because it's entirely subjective: what one person considers moderate, another considers extreme, and so forth. So infrequency... as in to indulge infrequently in something, I feel, is a more accurate description of doing something as a special occasion. And such was the case on a recent trip to Monterey Bay. Vegan donuts were discovered! Here's what I wrote about it on social:
A shout-out to Rock N Roll Donut Bar in Monterey, CA. I dropped in this weekend and saw this massive showcase of some of the most obscenely decadent-looking donuts I had ever seen. I then asked if, by chance, they happened to have any vegan choices available. My man, Walter, smiled and told me that everything in the shop was vegan! I was absolutely stunned. While there was just one little sentence on a chalkboard that said “Ask us about our vegan options,” it turns out that no one seems to care that they’re vegan, unless they know in advance that they’re vegan… at which time many people are likely to walk away in disgust, and not even give them a try.
Truth is, their donuts are so fucking good, no one can even tell the difference! I had a blackberry “cream cheese” one that first day, but then returned the next day for a Strawberry Shortcake, Death by Chocolate, and a plain maple frosting one. These were all absolutely extraordinary. (Don’t worry about a sugar overdose… my girl helped!) Over three decades later, these were probably the best vegan donuts I’ve ever had. And folks, that’s saying something.
Check out their website for full transparency on ingredients, and some cool videos detailing their practices and philosophies. Thanks again, Walter. (Didn’t catch the owner’s name, but many kudos to that brother…)
So again, the practice here is not abstinence, but delayed gratification. And yes, it can be a bitch!
My final point? How far we have come in the plant-based/vegan movement! Once upon a time, an all-vegan anything would struggle to market exclusively to vegans. But now, this all-vegan donut place realizes they can attract a larger mainstream audience if they don't promote that they're vegan. Pretty wild, I say...
Thanks again, everybody. Connect soon!
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