The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Pop Concerts series has truly replaced the Familiar Favourites Concerts of old, and now enjoy a new branding in its own right. Conducted by Associate Conductor Joshua Tan, this concert of American jazz classics on Friday at Esplanade Concert Hall could be said to be a landmark, and one by which future pops concerts are judged.
Everybody had gone to hear Gershwin, but The Essential Ellington, a medley of popular standards by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and orchestrated by Jeff Tyzik, served as a de facto overture. Employing lots of brass, woodwinds and a drum-set operated by Jonathan Fox, melodies such as Take The A Train, Satin Doll and Perdido were given a gloss of glitz. One could be forgiven for thinking this was an evening at the Boston Pops.
Then Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone took centre stage. Attired in just black shirtsleeves, he appeared totally at ease and was all smiles. After clarinettist Li Xin's siren-like solo, Ozone's imposing entry was an indication that this was going to be a rather different Rhapsody In Blue. First, he played around with the harmonies and then added flourishes of his own, but not enough to alter the tenor of the well-loved classic as yet.
Cue the moments when the orchestra became tacit, and these were open season for Ozone. Purists might not take to his going off on a tangent, introducing new material and extemporising on it, but this was the true essence of jazz. He did so with such panache that it was difficult to dislike, and one often wondered when the orchestra would get its look in. Somehow with all the modulations, wheeling and dealing, he and conductor Tan managed to get the band to rejoin, and then it was off to the next adventure.
The cadenzas supplied by Gershwin took on new dimensions, always overblown but firmly in the right spirit of the game. It should not be forgotten that on its 1924 New York premiere, Gershwin was faced with a multitude of blank pages, from which he dished out a tour de force of improvisation. Ozone seemed to be reliving that legend and how he relished it.
While Rhapsody In Blue was free-form, Gershwin's Piano Concerto In F resembled a more structured creation in sonata form, with tighter and fixed parameters. As such, its first movement gave far less scope to doodle, and Ozone was impeccably faithful to the score - well, almost. The bluesy slow movement was however the red flag waved to a charging bull, and new flights of fantasy were soon taking off.
The biggest surprise came in the finale. Even within its strict toccata-like missives, Ozone found ample room to do his stuff and how. One was reminded of the finales in Beethoven's piano concertos where a cadenza is improvised for a few measures before entering the final coda. Here, Ozone was afforded the luxury of several minutes of heavy-duty barnstorming, not once but twice.
The big band closing was as full blown as one could have hoped for, and this spectacular and memorable endeavour was cheered on by a frenzied audience with a standing ovation, the sort that ends jazz concerts. Smiling as always, Ozone dedicated his tender and sentimental encore, Home, to his family. The next day was Valentine's Day after all, and that was the only reminder one needed.