Concord, 2105-2, 2002
Burton's website, Ozone's website
Virtuosi is part of an ongoing trend that has Jazz musicians, unwittingly or deliberately, support flagging Classical music sales by delving into its repertoire. And the opposite holds equally true - classical performers defect into the Jazz milieu. From Marsalis to Stoltzman and Daniels, Loussier to Cicero, Rampal to Galway, Kennedy to St. John, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that certain Classical musicians tire of stylistic and material restrictions imposed upon them. And Jazz cats like vibist Gary Burton and pianist Makoto Ozone ask "what if". What if Brahms, Scarlatti or Ravel could have time-traveled into the very late 20th century?

Infected by our present-day stylistic cross pollinations and willingness to experiment for creativitiy's sake - how would old Johannes respond to body piercings, mini-skirted chicks on rumbling Harleys or a night on NY's best Jazz clubs? Buttoned-up Scarlatti emerging disheveled and Ecstasy-enhanced from a rave to translate his impressions, electronically no less, into clefs, counterpoints and chords? Rachmaninoff turning Rock star by improvising on a Roland synth on MTV ?

According to Burton, the conceptual spark for Virtuosi jumped off Makoto, Burton's pianistic sidekick and Classical devil's advocate of 20 years, while talking about his classical performances with the New Japan Philharmonic over a roast beef sandwich in an Arizona diner. Makoto got to the keyboard by way of an infatuation with Oscar Peterson's music and eventually entered Berklee in Boston where he met up with Burton who now holds the VP chair of said institution.

Virtuosi spans quite the gamut, opening with Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin", closing with an original Ozone number entitled "Something Borrowed, Something Blue", and meandering from this port o' call to final destination via an eclectic island hopping of Barber, Rachmaninoff, Cardoso, Gershwin, Scarlatti, Confrey, Delibes and Brahms.

The aquatic impressionism and fluid harmonic sophistication of Ravel opens score-perfect but drifts into vivacious realms of Jazz improv that only in the underlying chord structure ties to the Frenchman yet reissues the leit motif throughout for continuity of the connection.

The liner notes share how Burton taught Samuel Barber how to improvise on the piano that Rachmaninoff had bequeathed on him. On Virtuosi, Burton revisits a 1945 Barber tune called "Excursions I, Opus 20" whose shifty bass line reeks of a late-night Jazz outing, the perfect vehicle for Gary and Makoto to take this opus places its originator would have appreciated very much.

The shadowy "Milango" tango by Jorge Cardoso blossoms into a brilliant salon-style rendition that alternates between the studied machismo of jagged heavy-handed accents and bittersweet poetic interludes, the metallic timbre of Gary's Musser and sonorous warmth of Makoto's Yamaha CF-IIIS intermingling beautifully to represent either pole between which the sensual tension of the tune unfurls.

Gershwin's "Prelude II" gets the Blues makeover while the percussive staccato theme of his "Movement III" from the Piano Concerto in F turns energetic barrelhouse base for a high-spirited, technically demanding vibraphone exposition atop Makoto's driving bass syncoptions. Here both musicians get to rip into their instruments and display extreme showboat bravura that has you tap your feet while your head shakes in simultaneous disbelief and admiration.

Brahms' tightly percolating "Capriccio II" acquires new 'tude and hipness that would have permed old Johann's beard into tight curls of shock but is just one of many stunning examples how highly uncommon thematic and harmonic development can always lead back to the original idea in ways that seem utterly elusive yet perfectly synchronous once you hear 'em.

The closing Makoto number throttles back the tempo and rhythmic incision of preceding tracks for a free-floating, half-light mood number that's really a slowly revolving waltz disguised by heavy rubato and the absence of overt beat emphasis.

With eleven forays spanning an average of six minutes each, Virtuosi is a true gem of a "neoclassical" Jazz album that builds on the nearly psychic interplay of two world-class improvisers carefully polling the Classical repertoire for the choicest cherries that would be most conducive to such a sex change. Expertly sequenced, it's a surprising yet totally satisfying example of the earlier-mentioned trend that might eventually erase the lines separating genres altogether. At present, they're becoming awfully blurred by pioneering musicians that have mastery of either idiom to deconstruct the rigid rules of yesteryear.

Most highly recommended - especially to those who in general discard Classical music as too portly or stiff, the kind of geeky outsider who always remains on the sidelines watching others dance. On Virtuoso, the geezers that couldn't dance prove otherwise, the ones already gliding effortlessly over the parquet now segueing into break-dance interludes that'll have you applaud in flabbergasted surprise. It's that kind of an album. Go grab one.