The Sicilian Jazz Project earned Michael Occhipinti the Ragusani nel Mondo prize in Ragusa, Sicily in 2009 and was also a 2009 JUNO Award Nominee (Canada’s Grammy) for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year, Michael Occhipinti’s The Sicilian Jazz Project has been described by critics as a “masterpiece of cultural fusion.”
The newest group put together by guitarist/composer Michael Occhipinti, The Sicilian Jazz Project features some of Canada’s finest musicians, including Michael’s brother Roberto Occhipinti on bass, Ernie Tollar on flute/saxophones, Dominic Mancuso on vocals and guitar, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Louis Simao on accordion, Barry Romberg on drums, and Michael on electric and acoustic guitars. Produced by Roberto Occhipinti, the recording features a number of musical guests and crosses many genres including jazz, world music, and chamber music.
In 1954 ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax toured Sicily, recording traditional folk music performed by assorted peasants and folk entertainers. These field recordings form the basis of The Sicilian Jazz Project, where the historic Sicily that Michael and Roberto’s parents left in the early 1950’s meets the new and multicultural country they raised their family in. Composer/arranger Michael Occhipinti has reinvented the music in imaginative ways that reflect the diversity he grew up with in Toronto. The talented individuals who make up the group have experience in jazz, classical, Arabic, Cuban, Brazilian, and Italian popular music. Michael uses the eclecticism of the ensemble as a great asset and freely blends Sicilian music with global rhythms and a variety of modern approaches to the music. The result is a passionate repertoire that resonates with audiences wherever the group performs.
The Sicilian Jazz Project has performed to ecstatic crowds across Canada, in the U.S. and Mexico, and in Italy.
Equally at home on the stages of jazz festivals, world music festivals, and even Chamber music festivals, the Sicilian Jazz Project puts on a passionate performance that is not to be missed. Michael Occhipinti's adventurous electric guitar playing and ample use of effects means the band can also hold its own anywhere that guitar solos dominate (e.g. blues and pop festivals).
“The Sicilian Jazz Project is an astonishingly salient new sound in the jazz spectrum”
Stephen Pedersen – Halifax Chronicle Herald
“Occhipinti’s re-imaginings don’t sound like pure Sicilian music, nor are they intended to. Instead, they’re the sound of a musician who knows where he came from and where he’s going – and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Alex Vary The Georgia Straight (Vancouver)
“Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project was a winning sextet with exotic ethno-musical influences from Sicily and the Mediterranean stitched to contemporary jazz inventions, rousing a Thursday crowd at the Yardbird. With Occhipinti's wonderful arrangements, it was beautifully rendered with the soulful vocal of Dominic Mancuso and a band of Toronto's best (including trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and drummer Barry Romberg). Sicilian yes, but ultimately Canadian.”
Roger Levesque – Edmonton Journal
Check out a wonderful and very detailed review of the Sicilian Jazz Project at
Michael Occhipinti - guitar
Dominic Mancuso - vocals
Louis Simao - accordion
Ernie Tollar - saxophone
Kevin Turcotte - trumpet
Roberto Occhipinti - bass
Barry Romberg - drums
Maryem Tollar - vocals (optional)
string quartet (optional)
Michael Occhipinti's The Sicilian Jazz Project was released internationally in 2009 and the entire recording can be heard at www.thesicilianjazzproject.com and at www.myspace.com/thesicilianjazzproject
Michael Occhipinti's CD CHASING AFTER LIGHT was a 2008 JUNO (Canada's GRAMMY) Nominee. Visit www.michaelocchipinti.com or www.myspace.com/michaelocchipinti
Michael's CD CREATION DREAM - THE SONGS OF BRUCE COCKBURN was a 2001 JUNO Award Nominiee
Michael Occhipinti co-leads the group NOJO (Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Award) and each of the group's five recordings have been JUNO nominees and the group won a JUNO for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for its 1995 debut. The group has recorded with clarinet great Don Byron and sax legend Sam Rivers. Visit www.nojomusic.com
Billboard Review of the Sicilian Jazz Project
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Album Review Considering his roots, the Sicilian Jazz Project is a logical step for Toronto, Ontari...Album Review
Considering his roots, the Sicilian Jazz Project is a logical step for Toronto, Ontario, Canada based electric guitarist Michael Occhipinti, whose father, Giorgio Occhipinti, was a member of a late-'40s group based in Modica, Italy. Using vocalists, a string quartet, and horn complement from the Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra, the synthesis of modern jazz charts, folk, popular, and chamber music folded into traditional songs from his original homeland makes for a stunning amalgam where old musics agreeably meet new styles halfway. Brother Roberto Occhipinti plays bass and produced the session, some stirring crooning vocals from Dominic Mancuso are featured, while the accordion of Luis Simãõ is as present as Michael Occhipinti's silver threaded amplified and processed sound. Strains from the Middle East, latter period multi-cultural Duke Ellington, Latin America, and urban Canada are slipped in. There's a range of emotional content that is hard to dismiss or deny, as the players deeply feel this music, bringing it to joyous highs and sub-strata lows, positioned in a hopeful and richly rendered framework. Dance music is an undeniable component, starting with a signature song "The Almond Sorters," a fast, string heavy waltz flavored by the wise oud of Levon Ichkhanian, pungent electric violin of Hugh Marsh, and sky high vocals of Egyptian born Maryem Hassan Tollar. In a tarantella style, "Jolla" presents itself in two and seven beats as opposed to a 12/8 meter, with Simãõ leading, while Occhipinti's guitar and the soprano of Ernie Tollar collectively leap and lope, then go into a rock & roll break. "The Ribbon Dancers" is most traditional, a harvest celebration in caroming straight 4/4, morphed into 3/4 under a bamboo wood flute seam from Ernie Tollar. Mancuso could easily be Caruso on his features; the hot hand clapping triple ethnic fusion "Vitti 'Na Crozza" representing a skull speaking, the string quartet waltz paean to commitment "Nun Ti Lassu," the Bill Frisell type country and eastern wheat harvest common work song "Cantu Ri Li Schuggiatura," and "The Sulphur Miner" mixing dour and dainty chordal tonalities with spaciness and ultra-high drama. Of the pieces that stand apart from the others, "Ciuri Ciuri" is a joyous, modern big-band tune about giving and returning love from the perspective of a beautiful flower, while "Nnuena" mixes somewhat deviously premeditated Sicilian and reggae or ska elements in a swing jazz broth, accented by Simãõ's basil leaf accordion. This is not just a mere spicy meatball of tomato sauced music as it is a full seven courses of international cuisine, a triumphant recording on many levels, and one that should be given full due diligence for satisfying audio digestion. It's highly recommended, no matter where your palliate and taste levels lie. ~ Michael G. Nastos, All Music Guide
Album Review - Michael Occhipinti - The Sicilian Jazz Project - reviewed by Raul d'Gama Rose
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Michael Occhipinti The Sicilian Jazz Project True North Records 2008 It is a fact of history t...Michael Occhipinti
The Sicilian Jazz Project
True North Records
It is a fact of history that modern music can be traced to the seven-note diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti)—solffeggio—that came into existence when the Benedictine monk, Guido of Arrezo created its scale. He did so ingeniously, by nominating syllables from the first verse of “The Hymn of St. John,” written by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century. But it is also true, though less known, that the monk was himself influenced by the much older Islamic notation, derived from the Arabic alphabet.
Such disparate sources. And yet they come together, in a conspiracy that could only be inspired by the Muses themselves! No longer, then, should it be such a stretch to give praise that jazz—the flash that ignites the very art of music today—has become the confluence of a myriad musical cultures. And for those who have not done so already, now is as good a time to start: The Sicilian Jazz Project by Michael Occhipinti and his ridiculously brilliant ensemble is here.
In his notes, which it pays to read before listening to this record, guitarist Michael Occhipinti reminds us that Sicily was quite the spot where cultures once collided. The European world and the Mediterranean, Near and Far Eastern worlds met, exchanged ideas in the arts and enriched each other. In July of 1954, says Occhipinti, the legendary musicologists Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella came to Modica, Sicily to make a series of field recordings. Lomax and Carpitella's research resulted in a glorious catalogue of songs of work and worship. (Anyone who knows Lomax's work will also know that he was the first to record much of the early blues and also responsible for having Leadbelly released from penitentiary to produce some of the most utterly memorable blues recordings).
And so, inspired when he listened to a CD of Lomax's 1954 recordings made in Sicily, as well as prompted by a happy set of circumstances—including the birth of his daughter—Occhipinti returned to the home of his ancestors to listen for himself. And records what may well be one of the most exquisitely memorable music produced in the art of a jazz catalogue. Surely this record will rank with the likes of Bill Laswell's production of Maleem Mahmoud Ghania with Pharoah Sanders The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom, 1994), Laswell's own production of Bachir Attar's The Next Dream (CMP, 1992), a host of other Laswell productions and Randy Weston's Saga (Verve/Gitanes, 1995). The Sicilian Jazz Project, like the Laswell productions, achieves more authenticity than many productions that have attempted the same expedition—including many by some of the music's most celebrated artists.
Occhipinti has crafted this music with uncommon perfection. Much more than Lomax's field recordings are the standards here. The music stands up to the same high levels of development as the folk arts of Modica, Sicily, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. But using the template of the Lomax recordings, Occhipinti has created music that is woven imperceptibly into this very fabric of the folk music that The Sicilian Jazz Project recreates and venerates as well.
“Occhipinti interprets this extraordinary music in his inimitable style, using horn-like guitar lines and the metaphor of jazz”
Much of the music has a riveting narrative. It may safely be said that this record works, therefore, as an extremely absorbing suite, perhaps unintentional, but completely relevant, nevertheless. “The Almond Sorters,” the track that opens the suite, is a remarkably powerful reminder that we are in a realm of vivid dynamics—of brilliant timbres and textures. Maryam Hassan Tollar's vocal soars high above even some of the most exquisite chorinhos of Brasil as she wails out a tale of family destruction in a small town. With intonations that come close to operatic proportions, Hassan-Tollar delivers a stirring performance backed by Occhipinti and his ensemble as they slide their way through the glissandos that the ancient song demands, with surprisingly contemporary virtuosity.
“Ciuri ciuri,” is deeply moving as well—a tale of love and betrayal in a pastoral setting, dripping with a myriad of emotions. It is beautifully improvised despite the tightly defined folk forms. By track three, “Vitti 'na crozza,” the atmosphere in this listening room is so charged that even with eyes wide shut lights appear to go out in flashes. The project folk singer, an unbridled talent, Torontonian Dominic Mancuso turns modern gnawa musician/storyteller as he brings the “skull” (crozza) to life singing in its voice of the pain of dying a lonely death. It is a comical tale brought to life in all of his indominatible raspy voiced brilliance.
Saxophonist Ernie Tollar and the wonderfully talented Brasilian accordionist Luis Simao take center stage in the first part of “Jolla.” This is a deceptively simple melody with a hidden sophistication in its rhythms that are pulsed at 12/8. Violinist Hugh Marsh joins the stellar cast featuring the high-flying virtuosity of Tollar and the ringing melodics of Simao. The song takes off into the contemporary realm of jazz as the second part breaks into rhythm. Mancuso's raspy vocalastics burn like cold fire in the balladic “Nun ti lassu” as he cries out his refrain to a lover...”I won't leave you... I won't leave you.” Mancuso has real duende. He inhabits the songs he sings like they are a second skin. And, as a result, his “blues” are as powerful as the best of his peers who haunt the Delta and the desert, both far, far away. He unlocks the power of the songs as Cuban Santeria do in ritualistic vocals. Like them, it is as if the singer has become the song.
”Cantu ri li schuggiatura” is a classic work song, a blues lament. It is the perfect vehicle for the Occhipinti's bending, wailing guitar as he weeps his way through the melody, when he does play it, and stretches exquisitely through his stellar solo. Tollar once again soars in the azure blue of the song's celestial thrust. Trumpeter Kevin Turcotte takes a bow here as he and Tollar swap roles as lead voices. And here's the other thing: there is a wonderful contrast between the traditional folk line taken by Mancuso and the unrivalled contemporary nature of Tollar and Turcotte. It is almost as if the taut, climatic ending of this wonderful suite is on its way, as indeed it is.
”The Sulphur Miner” is where it all comes to a head. This is the high point of an altogether exquisite record. Hugh Marsh bows his way on his violin like a whole chorus of wails buffeting Mancuso's vocals. Tollar joins in and trades lines and inner and secret harmonics with Marsh, until they are joined by the percussion of Rick Lazar and Barry Romberg's drums. Marsh soars overhead as the bridge approaches and Occhipinti's guitar and Simao's accordion take this hypnotic work song to great heights, building such unbearable tension that is only broken by a return to the singular wail of the sulphur miner's lament.
”The Ribbon Dancers,” the record's penultimate track, is a beautiful polka-like song. A harvest dance that breaks the darker moods prevalent on the record as it worked its way through pastoral life. Occhipinti interprets the music in his inimitable style, using the metaphor of jazz. With a quirkily tuned axe, the guitarist plays horn-like lines as Charlie Christian used to. His tone too is luscious and ripe. Turcotte has another star turn here. And Tollar is, as usual, stellar. “Nnuena,” another pastoral gem, concludes the suite, but not before it zips delightfully across the universe, to the reggae world of the Caribbean. Tollar takes his alto saxophone on an expedition here and masterfully bends tonal rules as he tints the lines of the song's folkloric references with an utterly modern jazz palette.
So why is this record so important? It does for jazz what many Laswell productions have done for decades and it also does something more: the accessibility that made trumpeter Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1959) a classic. The Sicilian Jazz Project seems headed just there and sooner rather than later. For Michael Occhipinti has been able to grow, learn and draw inspiration from the greatest jazz and other music of the past in spirit and with feeling to make music that is today so utterly relevant, meaningful and memorable.
All The Sicilian Jazz - by Errol Nazareth
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The story behind The Sicilian Jazz Project, the new album from Michael Occhipinti, is as fascinating...The story behind The Sicilian Jazz Project, the new album from Michael Occhipinti, is as fascinating as the music itself.
Inspired by Sicilian folk and popular music, the local guitarist conceptualized an ambitious idea -- to arrange that repertoire for his jazz group.
Given the complexities inherent in both styles of music and the challenges of marrying two vastly different sounds, it is an understatement to say that this is a cross-cultural collaboration few of us would have dreamed of hearing.
It could have resulted in a hodgepodge, but it does not. The musical mix is exuberant and engaging, and the playing by some of T.O.'s finest musicians is stellar.
In the album's detailed liner notes -- which definitely increased my appreciation for the music -- Occhipinti says his idea was birthed three months after his daughter Beatrice was born.
"Even as I matured into a musician interested in the music of other cultures, somehow the music of Sicily didn't strike me as something I'd ever perform," Occhipinti writes. "Taking my daughter to Sicily changed that and made me want to know more about my own history and identity, and the music was an obvious place to start."
Occhipinti says some of his cousins hooked him up with recordings of local folkloric groups, but it was a copy of Italian Treasury: Sicily that really blew his mind.
Recorded in 1954 by the renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella, the album features "the voices and instruments of peasants, fishermen, shepherds, salt and sulphur miners, cart drivers, storytellers and strolling players singing murder ballads, lullabies and songs of love, work, and devotion."
"When I heard the Lomax stuff I liked the fact they were field recordings," Occhipinti says, explaining the songs provided the blueprint for the record. "It was liberating, you're not trapped by any familiar recorded versions of a tune (should you choose to reinterpret them).
"Some of it was familiar but some of it completely shocked me," he adds. "For example, the Arabic and North African quality of the music was surprising. It wasn't the idea I had in my head, the kind of polished tarantella (folk dance music) that I'd heard at weddings."
Occhipinti admits it was a challenge to adapt what he'd heard on the Lomax compilation to a jazz setting.
He says his original idea was to cut an all-instrumental record.
"So much of that (folkloric) music is in 6/8 time or 12/8 time and I thought, 'I can't make an entire record with that feel.' So it was simply a matter of asking myself, 'If I'm not gonna put it in triplet field then what time signature am I gonna put it in?'
For the answer to that question, cue up Jolla.
"It opens with Louis Simao playing the traditional tarantella on the accordion and then we go into a 7/4 funk thing," Occhipinti says.
Being musically adventurous has put The Sicilian Jazz Project in the same boat as Autorickshaw, the local genre-bending Indo-jazz ensemble -- no one knows where to lump them.
"We played a lot of jazz festivals this summer, but we also played at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and a few weeks ago a few of us did a show for the Sicilian Cultural Society," Occhipinti says.
"It was all elderly Sicilians, but we did what we do and they loved it. At the end of the night they said that what knocked them out was they recognized the songs but they also liked the fact we took them places they didn't expect to go."
That, I interject, has got to be the biggest compliment the group will ever receive.
"It is. Without question," he agrees. "It's pretty thrilling. I have to say that I never really thought it would mean so much to me to play in front of people who are from my parents' generation and who would like it."
Net Rhythms Review of the Sicilian Jazz Project
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Michael Occhipinti - The Sicilian Jazz Project (True North) This is an extremely intriguing recor...Michael Occhipinti - The Sicilian Jazz Project (True North)
This is an extremely intriguing record: one that I'd class both eclectic and adventurous, musically speaking and concept-wise, and genuinely multi-layered in all senses of the term. It takes its title from the name of the band which 2008 JUNO Award nominee Michael Occhipinti originally put together in 2004 as a special project to reshape the traditional folk music of Sicily in a modern jazz context, from the point of view of a Canadian musician born of Italian (Sicilian) immigrants and living in a multicultural environment (Toronto). The individual musical elements (and indeed, the very genres of Sicilian and jazz) might on the face of it seem illogical, if not uneasy bedfellows, but the resultant compositions prove both stimulating and inspiring, embracing a freewheeling and open-minded spirit of exploration within a sufficiently (and satisfyingly) disciplined overall framework. The original sources Michael uses (field recordings made by Alan Lomax on his 1954 tour of Sicily) cover an overwhelming variety of styles, and each of the album's nine tracks is built around – or arises out of – one of the Lomax recordings. Similarly, the musicians comprising the Sicilian Jazz Project all have expertise in global rhythms and carry within them an impressive degree of experience that ranges from Arabic, Portuguese, Brazilian, Cuban and Indian musics to classical and new-classical as well as straight jazz. The basic band lineup is accordion, saxes, trumpet, bass and drums, but three tracks also employ a moody string section. Among the latter can be found the album's highlights; the ballad Nun Ti Lassu features the impassioned singing of Dominic Mancuso, who also appears on the extended standout Sulphur Miner's Lament, whereas the atmosphere-laden opening piece The Almond Sorters features guest singer Maryem Hassan Tollar and an oud player. Michael's own unabashed penchant for the sound of the electric guitar also surfaces from time to time with some really juicy solo passages on several of the pieces. Happy-go-lucky-sounding traditional Sicilian dance tunes or songs form the springboard for some delectable jazzy syncopated improvisations on Jolia and The Ribbon Dancers especially, whereas a spicy Moorish-Qawwali rhythm handclaps its way through Vitti 'Na Crozza and a Jamaican dub groove springs eternal from Nnuena. Even if you don't normally appreciate jazz, there'll be a lot for you to admire and enjoy in the music conjured by this brave and imaginative project from a musician whose previous venture, I discover from the liner notes, was an exploration of the songs of Bruce Cockburn from a jazz perspective (now that I must hear!). The digipack contains excellent background notes too. Integrity of vision, spirit and musicianship go hand in hand on this unique venture.
David Kidman March 2009
Now Playing on Bentley's Bandstand
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Michael Occhipinti The Sicilian Jazz Project True North Records There are some albums desti...
The Sicilian Jazz Project
True North Records
There are some albums destined to blow your mind. On the surface one called The Sicilian Jazz Project seems a little predictable. What are they going to play: Italian music? But dig a little deeper and the plot sickens real fast. Michael Occhipinti has parental roots in Sicily, but his family immigrated to Canada before he was born, and from there everything hit the fan. There are so many global styles in these songs it's impossible to pin anything down. Guitarist/composer Occhipinti uses the early field recordings by Alan Lomax of traditional Sicilian folk music being performed by sulfur miners, tuna fishermen and assorted peasants and folk entertainers as a jumping-off point. From there, it's an emotional free-for-all, with classical, Arabic, Cuban, Brazilian and other influences sweeping freely into the mix. The musicians are world class, able to perform almost anything with a swirling enthusiasm that is quickly contagious. There are a lot of them too, with a complete string section joining in, along with the alluring vocalists Dominc Mancuso and Maryem Tollar adding just the right seductive touch. Everything combines to create a joyous blend of indefinable sounds, an atmosphere that erases all worry and replaces that with the feeling anything is possible and it's only a matter of time before the clouds will lift to reveal a startling sky of beauty. This is really why we listen to music: to be surprised and lifted up, stripped of our preconceptions and left breathless by hearing something brand new. Big props to Michael Occhipinti and all the players for taking jazz into a new room, one where the floor is moving and the walls keep breathing in and out, leaving listeners somewhere up near the ceiling hoping to never come down.
Atlantic Jazz Festival Review
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ATLANTIC JAZZ FESTIVAL 2008 Follow this year's JazzFest with Coast blogger Graham Pilsworth. ...
ATLANTIC JAZZ FESTIVAL 2008
Follow this year's JazzFest with Coast blogger Graham Pilsworth.
The Sicilian Jazz Project Sizzles and L'Orkestre Des Pas Perdus Romp, Romp, Romps the Tent
July 18, 2008 | 11:29 AM
So you're sitting around wonderin' - ice tea or a cold beer near at hand. Not about how in Zog's name you're ever gonna pack iPhone heat and still afford to eat regularly. Naw. More outside stuff. Like, suppose Gil Evans, the late great musical genius arranger/composer who sired the Birth of the Cool for Miles Davis, got hold of musicologist Alan Lomax field recordings of old Sicilian folk songs that were wildly popular fare at weddings, dances and parties and worked his magic on them. What would they have sounded like reshaped for a cool modern Canadian jazz band?
Last night in the Jazz Tent, Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project came oh-so close to providing the definitive answer.
First. A great entrance. In single file, the band strode on stage from the wings singing a folk song acappella. In position, instruments at the ready, the players were introduced in song. Barry Romberg on drums, Roberto Occhipinti (Michael's brother) - bass, Louis Simao - accordion, Ernie Tollar - saxophones and flutes, Dominic Mancuso - vocals, percussion, mini-bass, and Michael Occhipinti on electric guitar. M. Occhipinti, slight, dapper, somewhat owlish behind large frame glasses, looked open, friendly and relaxed in a light blue short-sleeved shirt, pale gray slacks and a dark cloth cap. It bespoke of a good time vibe.
The opening number, a tuna fishing song no less, set the tone and flavour for the rest of the exceptionally enjoyable set. Some fishing trip. Romberg's rippling assertive drumming and Roberto Occhipinti's crisp fast-fingered bass lines were less suggestive of a heavy diesel fishing smack engine than a finely-tuned powerplant beneath the hood of a sweet ride Lamborghini. Indeed when the band grooved with smooth, pulse-riffling, sophisticated ensemble playing, it was like we listeners were care-freely zoom-zoom-zooming along a twisting country road on a warm sunny day in an expensive Italian sports car with the top down, man. Lovely feature.
The light baritone singing of Dominic Mancuso - lusty, emotive, freighted with passionate sincerity, lifted the folk tunes high up into the thrilling zone. The instrumentalists framed his vocalizing with stellar work on accordion, wooden flutes, soprano sax and smoothly crafted lyricism on the guitar. Solos sparked awe. Fiery licks, assertive ostinatos (short repeated melodic phrases) and luminous dynamics wowed the crowd who might never have imagined how simple Sicilian folk sngs could have been unconventionally reimagined into such hip and exciting musicality. In light of last night's performance, all that's left to say is: Michael Occhipinti, that's some una sola visione estatica.
Michael Occhipinti Jazzes Up His Sicilian Roots
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By Alexander Varty Twenty years ago, if you’d told Michael Occhipinti that the best record of his c...By Alexander Varty
Twenty years ago, if you’d told Michael Occhipinti that the best record of his career would feature the rustic sounds of the Sicilian tarantella he would have thought you were crazy. Of course, he knew what it sounded like: growing up in a musical family with Sicilian roots, it was the soundtrack to weddings and parties throughout his childhood.
But play it? No way.
“Sicilian music was always just there, sort of like the language or the food,” he says, on the line from his Toronto home. “But I wanted nothing to do with it when I was learning to play the guitar.”
Now, though, it’s become a consuming—and creative—obsession for the guitarist, the youngest of five siblings, three of whom are professional musicians.
“I think my dad would have been happier if one of us had played the accordion,” he cracks. But papa Occhipinti would surely have been pleased by the Sicilian Jazz Project, a stunningly imaginative fusion of his family’s heritage with state-of-the-art jazz musicianship. The group’s self-titled debut, slated for release this Tuesday (July 1), is a prime example of how daring musicians can move forward by looking back.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” notes the bandleader. “From the time I started playing jazz, for me it’s always been this kind of… Not a conflict, exactly, but we’re presented with this American songbook, and we all learn it, and for good reasons. But when you go to personalize the music, what are you going to do? And really, what we should do is inject our own history into this thing.”
And so he’s canvassed his Sicilian cousins for tunes, checked out contemporary folk groups from the island, and gone back to the field recordings that pioneering ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax made during the 1950s—a particularly fruitful, and appropriate, source.
“He did these recordings in Sicily in 1954, and my parents left in 1952 and 1953,” Occhipinti explains. “So I kind of liked that coincidence: Lomax recorded one or two things in my parents’ hometown, and I just kind of liked the idea that he was capturing the sound of the place as they would have heard it.
“His field recordings were completely raw,” he adds. “I mean, they’re amateur performances, they’re not professional; it’s not like there’s fancy arrangements. So I kind of liked not being burdened by how someone else approached it, or by the instrumentation they used. It was almost like a blank slate.”
Occhipinti’s reimaginings don’t sound like pure Sicilian music, nor are they intended to. Instead, they’re the sound of a musician who knows where he came from and where he’s going—and that’s a beautiful thing.
Review - live at the Toronto Jazz Festival
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Sweet and Bitter: Sicilian Jazz by Tova G. Kardonne In the dim and fragrant atmosphere of La M...
Sweet and Bitter: Sicilian Jazz
by Tova G. Kardonne
In the dim and fragrant atmosphere of La Mezzetta, Michael Occhipinti’s delicately picked guitar line accompanies a floating thread of muted trumpet. Instant bliss-out, but for the 7-beat cycle and escalating tension. I’m not quite sure how he, Kevin Turcotte on Trumpet, and Dominic Mancuso on vocals/bass/percussion managed to pull off that bliss/tension thing, but they did it a lot. In fact, the push-pull of opposing forces was a recurring theme of the evening, both in the music and the lyrics, whether it be tension amid bliss, riches in poverty, melancholy in the sweetest love song, or hopes for long life and happiness spoken by a skull on the ground.
The combining of opposed elements was echoed even on the level of the form of the music, in the fusion of traditional and electrically modern textures. Following the long-ago-and-faraway sounds of that first tune was “Fave Amare,” which translates as “Bitter Beans,” in reference to the poor harvests in Sicily that left families with nothing but beans to eat. With an intro like that, the echo-FX and sighing electronic manipulations of the guitar were quite a surprise — no dusty villas and grandmothers in black in that sound. Still, the bitterness, as well as the love of the land that produced so little, were communicated in the ensemble sound, with the poignant facility of musical masters who have found yet another vocabulary in which to express an age-old story.
How can I choose from among the high points of this show? The husky tenor of Mancuso’s vocals were so full of longing and gutsy bravado, casually, effortlessly in the centre of the pitch, and so Sicilian in the way he subtly showed the Arabic influences that have passed through that island and left a mark on the music. Turcotte’s trumpet lines were restrained and melodic, yet virtuosic when the arcs of his solos reached their peaks. Occhipinti was a charming host, a skilled player in both his capacity as accompanist and soloist, boldly and tastefully inserting strange new elements in his family’s traditional music.
The Sicilian Jazz Project, I’ll be there whenever you play.
Jazz Fest shaping up to be a Vintage Year
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Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project was a winning sextet with exotic ethnomusical influences ...Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project was a winning sextet with exotic ethnomusical influences from Sicily and the Mediterranean stitched to contemporary jazz inventions, rousing a Thursday crowd at the Yardbird. With Occhipinti's wonderful arrangements, it was beautifully rendered with the soulful vocal of Dominic Mancuso and a band of Toronto's best (including trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and drummer Barry Romberg). Sicilian yes, but ultimately Canadian.
Most shows involve either one long set or two sets (although for some club shows the group will do 3 sets). Concerts usually involve two 70 minute sets with an intermission.
The group performs all of the music from the Sicilian Jazz Project CD along with a variety of other pieces (including a surprising fishermen's chant that usually opens the band's shows).
1. Cialomi (a tuna fishing song)
2. The Almond Sorters
4. Nun it lassu (traditional ballad)
5. The Sulphur Miner
1. Ciuri Ciuri
2. Cantu ri li scugghitura (trad.wheat harvesting song)
3. The Ribbon Dancers
4. Vitti na crozza (a popular song that gets an Afro-pop treatement).
There are no upcoming dates at this time.