Michael Occhipinti & The SicilianProject
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Michael Occhipinti & The SicilianProject

Toronto, Ontario, Canada | Established. Jan 01, 2004 | SELF | AFM

Toronto, Ontario, Canada | SELF | AFM
Established on Jan, 2004
Band World Jazz




"The Sicilian Jazz Project Reached The Audience's Hearts"

The Sicilian Jazz Project, which is back in Ottawa this weekend, demonstrated how well jazz can reach an audience's heart in a performance in an Aylmer park last summer.

Toronto vocalist Dominic Mancuso sang the entire concert in a dialect of Sicilian – but that didn't matter because the songs were about universals like love, work, discrimination, and celebration, and because of the sheer infectiousness, energy, and beauty of the music.

By the end of the show, most of the audience was singing along with Mancuso – and didn't have to stand for the final ovation because they had already got up to dance or sway to the music.

The project is the brainchild of Toronto jazz guitarist/composer Michael Occhipinti, and is based on his own Sicilian family heritage, as well as field recordings made by musicologist Alan Lomax in Sicily in 1954. But as with several of his other projects, Occhipinti used the original folk music only as a starting point, adding his own jazz sensibility, rhythms, arrangements, and improvisation to produce a highly listenable cross-cultural mix.

Originally, the project's music was strictly instrumental, but when Occhipinti met Mancuso (whose family is also originally from Sicily, but a different part of the island), it was quickly clear that his expressive voice added to the musical depth and the emotional impact.

The show opened with “Cialomi”, a tuna fishing chant. It started out a cappella with a call-and-return chant, followed by the musicians adding hand claps and urging the audience to join in. Then Occhipinti on electric guitar and Louis Simão on accordion started an infectious riff, and Kevin Turcotte soared over them on trumpet, and music's appeal was established.

“The Almond Sorters” was inspired by an epic tale of a young woman's tragic life. Its sad and evocative melody was initially expressed both by Simão's accordion and Mancuso's intense vocals. But then it moved from happy (bright trumpet rhythms) to sad again (a slow, full double bass solo by Michael's brother, Roberto Occhipinti) and then, as the trumpet called out, circled back to its initial tragic and romantic feel

“Cantu ri li schuggiatura”, a tribute to the workers who gleaned the last few ears of wheat out of the fields, comes from Occhipinti's ancestral home of Modica on the southern tip of Sicily. It was a striking piece in waltz time with long, extended phrasing in the vocals.

“Fave Amari (Bitter Beans)” was a bitterly funny account of the poverty in post-war Sicily, when men were paid in cans of beans instead of cash. Occhipinti said his own father was paid in this manner for his work as a stone mason rebuilding a church. Mancuso sang this piece physically and demonstratively, reaching up to heaven, looking up and down, and ending by miming running slowly against heavy winds. The music was similarly dramatic, with strong bass and drums under and trumpet accents, followed by an echoing solo by Simão.

“Nun ti lassu” was a sweet ballad with tear-jerking undertones. A slow guitar intro led into inviting and romantic vocals - but with a bit more bite than just crooning - underlined by accordion. Roberto Occhipinti's bass solo commenced with slow riffs but soon extended into the melody as well, again evoking the sorrow in the tune.

“a Staciuni” was another mixture of intensity and romanticism, beginning with Roberto Occhipinti's melancholy bowed bass intro together with Simão's hard riffs on accordion. Emphatic vocals – Mancuso reached out to the audience with splayed fingers – Turcotte's flexible trumpet solo and Occhipinti's fast and delicate guitar solo built up the tension. Finally, whole group got faster and faster before the song ended with a long trumpet line and strong applause.

A particular highlight was “The Sulphur Miner”, a dirge for the Sicilian miners who were used up and forgotten for their dangerous work. The combination of vibrating bowed bass, muted trumpet, and lamenting vocals created an almost unearthly feel. Each instrument echoed the melody, creating a feeling of intense sadness. The audience again strongly applauded.

The show closed with the joyful “Vitti 'na crozza”, a fast-paced number featuring vibrating trumpet, strongly sustained vocals, and growling electric guitar – and, in particular, a sinewy beat and a chorus that got everyone up dancing and singing.

Occhipinti released The Sicilian Jazz Project album in 2008 to critical acclaim, including a Juno nomination. Since then, he has been regularly touring it, mostly with the same group of musicians, and adding to its repertoire. The project's bandcamp page indicates he hopes to record a follow-up album in 2014.

This outdoor concert showed its appeal: a mixed francophone/ anglophone audience, who might not have ever heard Sicilian music and who could have left at any time, instead got totally involved in and excited by the 90-minute concert.

Missed it last summer? You can hear the most recent version of this music at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium on Saturday.

– Alayne McGregor -

"Rochester Jazz Festival Day 6: Michael Occhipinti and the Sicilian Jazz Project"

I arrived late at Max's for Michael Occhipinti & Sicilian Jazz Project, but that didn't matter; they played an extra-long set to another delighted audience. Occhipinti's band fuses traditional Italian songs with contemporary jazz. It might sound like an unlikely pairing, but it works beautifully.
Many of the group's tunes are based on field recordings that the great musicologist Alan Lomax made in Sicily in the early 1950's. In some cases Lomax saved tape by recording only a one-minute fragment of a song. But that was enough of a seed to bring to life a full-fledged musical organism.
Occhipinti clearly loved the traditional songs, but he is a plugged-in guitarist who plays at a breakneck pace in a manner reminiscent of cutting edge guitarist John McGlaughlin. Singer Dominic Mancuso has a voice perfectly textured to fit this music. His singing and attitude reminded me of (a Sicilian) Elvis Costello.
As in the case of practically all RIJF bands, every player --- accordionist, sopranino

saxophonist, trumpeter, etc. --- was a monster. They were obviously sophisticated

musicians, but somehow they managed to retain that street-corner band mystique. - City Newspaper - Rochester By Ron Netsky on June 18, 2009

"Review - live at the Toronto Jazz Festival"

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.

Michael Occhipinti
The Sicilian Jazz Project, I’ll be there whenever you play. - The Live Music Report

"Album Review - Michael Occhipinti - The Sicilian Jazz Project - reviewed by Raul d'Gama Rose"

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 a - Allboutjazz.com

"Billboard Review of the Sicilian Jazz Project"

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

- Billboard Magazine

"Net Rhythms Review of the Sicilian Jazz Project"

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

- NetRhythms.co.uk

"All The Sicilian Jazz - by Errol Nazareth"

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." - The Toronto Sun

"Michael Occhipinti Jazzes Up His Sicilian Roots"

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. - The Georgia Straight (Vancouver)

"Jazz Fest shaping up to be a Vintage Year"

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. - Edmonton Journal

"Now Playing on Bentley's Bandstand"

Michael Occhipinti
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.
— 03/26/2009

- www.sonicboomers.com

"Review from the 2015 Vancouver Jazz Festival"

It was a great year for talent, but the 2015 edition of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival will likely go down in history for its accompanying weather. Record-breaking high temperatures were the norm, with nary a cloud in the sky—until the very final moments of the Sicilian Jazz Project’s outdoor set at David Lam Park on Sunday (June 28). With thunderheads threatening in the west, a few timid onlookers left, but many more refused to budge, receiving only a light and refreshing spritz for their bravery.

Oh, and some deeply enjoyable music, too. The Sicilian Jazz Project is the brainchild of Toronto guitarist Michael Occhipinti, whose premise fuses the serpentine, almost Arabic melodies of his ancestral homeland with deep funk grooves and wild jazz improvisation. It’s a
winning mix, especially with clarinet virtuoso Don Byron onboard, but the most engaging performers on-stage were singers Dominic Mancuso and Pilar, the latter having arrived here
“direct from Roma”, according to Occhipinti.
Mancuso’s bluff assurance and Pilar’s laser-beam high notes were especially potent on “Amuninni Razzietta”, inspired by scenes Occhipinti witnessed growing up, in particular those
Friday nights when his bone-weary father, a construction worker, sparred with his stay-at-home mom about going dancing. “Are your parents having an argument?” his friends would
apparently ask. “No,” the young musician would reply, “They’re just discussing their plans for the evening.”

Sicilian tempers run legendarily high, but inhabitants of the Italian island—and their descendants—have a matching appetite for fun. Even a downpour couldn’t have dampened this sextet’s raucous energy.
Follow Alexander Varty on Twitter @alexandervarty - Georgia Straight

"Review from the 2015 Ottawa Chamber Music Festival"

Pilar and the Sicilian Jazz Project
Ottawa Chamberfest, Chamberfringe series
Saint Brigid's Centre for the Arts, Kildare Room
Saturday, August 1, 2015 – 10 p.m.

In many jazz shows there's a subtle distance between the performers and the material. It's part of the jazz cool: a way of looking at the music both from the inside and the outside, of standing apart.
Pilar and The Sicilian Jazz Project were having none of that, in their late-night Chamberfringe show August 1. Rarely have I seen performers – and particularly singers – who immersed themselves in the music as much as Franco-Italian vocalist Pilar and Canadian-Sicilian vocalist Dominic Mancuso did in this show. In almost every song, their voices, their faces, their hands, and their entire bodies were communicating the intense emotion in the lyrics
and music. It was an emphatically “hot” concert – both the vocals and the concentrated, jazz-fusion-flavoured instrumentals.

The project is the brainchild of Toronto jazz guitarist/composer Michael Occhipinti, and is based on his own Sicilian
family heritage, as well as field recordings made by musicologist Alan Lomax in Sicily in 1954. It's a rethinking of original folksongs through the lens of Occhipinti's jazz sensibility, rhythms, arrangements, and improvisation. In 2008, Occhipinti released The Sicilian Jazz Project album, which received considerable critical acclaim, including
a Juno nomination. Over the next few years, he continued to tour the project and write further material for it. In 2010,
he received a Chalmers Fellowship to live in Sicily to explore its folk culture further.
Last year, Occhipinti said, he had the chance to hear an album by Pilar and was so impressed by her singing that he
invited her to perform with the project – for the very first time, without ever playing together – at the 2014 Ottawa
Chamberfest. The combination was such a huge hit that Chamberfest invited them back again this year.

In May, the group – Occhipinti on guitar, his brother Roberto on double and electric bass, Mark Kelso on drums, Louis Simão on accordion, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Ernie Tollar on flute, and Mancuso on vocals – released their second album, Muorica. Pilar guested on the CD; so did clarinetist Don Byron, who also appeared in last year's Ottawa concert. A string quartet added a more classical feel to several pieces. About half of the tracks were
specifically written with Pilar in mind, Occhipinti said.
Occhipinti and the group (minus Byron, Turcotte, and Tollar) have been touring the album since its release, mostly with Pilar. By the time they hit the stage before a packed house at Chamberfringe, it was a tight and well-rehearsed

As in previous shows, Occhipinti took pains to introduce and explain the music, almost all of which was sung in the dialect of Muòrica (aka Modina), the small city in Sicily from which his parents emigrated. All but three of the songs they played were from the new album. The songs were generally more upbeat (pirates and love, rather than disaster and famine) than the first album.

They opened with “Sacciu Chi Parla A La Luna”, a mixture of swirling accordion lines from Simão and alternately delicate and dramatic vocals from Mancuso, all telling the story of a woman who, in her sad state, can only sing to the moon. Then Pilar appeared, looking as though she had stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her voice was equally angelic, soaring over the accordion accompaniment, as the band
paid tribute to the steep streets of Muòrica through Occhipinti's setting of a local poem.

In a dense concert which lasted more than 90 minutes, I was particularly impressed with two pieces: “Lingua e dialettu” and “The Soldier and The Siren”. “Lingua e dialettu” was a piece Occhipinti wrote especially for last year's Chamberfest concert. It's based on a poem by a Sicilian writer, whose message was that one can only enslave a people by taking away their language – like a
guitar which loses a chord every day. Over a muted guitar riff and light cymbals, Pilar first read the poem, simply and eloquently, and then started singing the words, her voice becoming richer and more intense. She then stopped singing and started clapping out the rhythm, as the band played a fluid jazz fusion-like melody. The instruments quietened and she returned, almost pleading as she sang, and then the music built up again before ending abruptly.
Occhipinti gave “The Soldier and The Siren” new lyrics, based on the experience of the Canadian soldiers who accepted the bloodless surrender of Muòrica during World War II. He noted that many of those soldiers never returned home again after several later battles in Italy. The piece began softly with light guitar and the deep moans
of Roberto Occhipinti's bowed bass, and Pilar softly singing the haunting melody above. Slowly it became clearer,
Pilar eventually singing a wordless, high lament which sounded like Cassandra bewailing fate.

Throughout the concert, Pilar and Mancuso alternated songs and also sang together on several pieces, such as the lyrical love song “Nun Ti Lassu”. They closed with “Amuninni Razzietta”, a friendly musical argument between husband bone-weary after a hard week of work and a wife who needs to get out of the house and wants to go
dancing, based on conversations Occhipinti heard as he was growing up. It was a bright, rhythmic piece which ended with Pilar singing exultantly and dancing in place. The audience clapped along as she and Mancuso sang their final duet. The audience then jumped to its feet to give the group a standing ovation.

This was definitely crossover music. It combined art song, folk music, and jazz in an entrancing and well-produced mixture – which of course made it particularly appropriate for Chamberfest's late-night Chamberfringe series.
– Alayne McGregor - Ottawa Jazz Scene


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 http://www.truenorthrecords.com/Albums.php?album_id=432



"Rarely have I seen performers – and particularly singers – who immersed themselves in the music as much as Italian vocalist Pilar and Canadian-Sicilian vocalist Dominic Mancuso did in this show. In almost every song, their voices, their faces, their hands, and their entire bodies were communicating the intense emotion in the lyrics and music. It was an emphatically “hot” concert”        Alayne McGregor, Ottawajazzscene.ca (Ottawa Chamber Festival review)

"Sicilian tempers run legendarily high, but inhabitants of the Italian island—and their descendants—have a matching appetite for fun.  Even a downpour couldn’t have dampened this sextet’s raucous energy.”

            Alex Varty, Georgia Straight (Vancouver Jazz Festival review)

“Michael Occhipinti’s miraculous sounding guitar, Don Byron’s warm and woody clarinet, and the magnificent voices of the ineffable Dominic Mancuso and the divine Pilar. No pomp; no circumstance; just wonderfully and magically made music.”                 Raul da Gama, JazzdaGama

Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Project has been dazzling audiences world-wide with an intriguing mix of rare Old World Sicilian folk material and the New World sounds of electric guitars, chamber music, funk and reggae grooves, and modern jazz. Using music sung by Sicilian fishermen, sulphur miners, and folk musicians as a starting point, the music is like a trip on the Mediterranean that somehow manages to detour to Mali, Jamaica, and Toronto. 

Michael Occhipinti’s work has been called “a masterpiece of cultural fusion” and his album The Sicilian Jazz Project received a 2009 JUNO Award nomination. The recording also resulted in the prestigious Ragusani nel Mondo Award being presented to Michael and his co-producer/bassist brother Roberto Occhipinti in Ragusa, Sicily in 2009. In 2010 Michael Occhipinti received a Chalmers Fellowship to live in Sicily and explore the folk culture further. The fruits of that trip form the basis of the group’s new album Muorica, featuring a large cast of Canada’s best musicians fronted by long-time vocalist Dominic Mancuso, and special guests that include the astonishing Rome-based vocalist Pilar, brilliant American clarinetist Don Byron, and the acclaimed Cecilia String Quartet.

Muorica’s bold songs and arrangements are already generating great praise.  The physical album comes with a stunning 40 page book that documents Michael Occhipinti’s experience in Sicily, with stories for each song, beautiful photographs, and even some travel advice and recipes to make it a unique album package. The group recently journeyed to Sicily to film both a video for the song Amuninni Razzietta, and to film their concert in the beautiful Teatro Garibaldi in the city of Modica.  

Michael Occhipinti and The Sicilian Project toured extensively in summer/fall 2015, and the group has brought its captivating and infectious live show to a range of festivals across Canada, Italy, the USA, and Mexico, including the Festival Cultural de Zacatecas, Mexico, The Rochester International Jazz Festival, Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and Toronto’s beautiful Koerner Hall. Mixing a unique repertoire, great story-telling and stellar musicianship, the band is not to be missed live. The Sicilian Project is now booking 2016 dates for Canada, Europe, and the United States.

An eight-time JUNO Award nominee for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Michael Occhipinti is a modern guitarist with a broad sonic palette, and a composer/bandleader interested in creative music of all kinds. Michael is one of few guitarists leading a 16-piece jazz orchestra (NOJO), and his other groups include Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon, instrumental funk group The Triodes, and Creation Dream: The Songs of Bruce Cockburn. Michael has performed with such notable musicians as Sam Rivers, Bruce Cockburn, Joe Lovano, Jeff Coffin, and long-time colleague Don Byron.

Band Members