Michael Occhipinti & Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon
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Michael Occhipinti & Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon


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"Whole Lotta Lennon"

Whole Lotta Lennon
It’s like Beatlemania all over again. This being The Beatles’ 50th anniversary, everyone, it seems, has devised a way to pay tribute to the Fab Four. There’s the crass – a furniture company has designed a unique settee to mark the occasion. There’s the predictable – several musicians have felt the need to join the ranks of millions who’ve recorded a Beatles tribute record. And there’s the cool and anything-but-predictable – Imagine: A Jazz Tribute to John Lennon at the Central United Church in Unionville tomorrow sees several top-flight local jazz musicians putting their mark on Lennon’s music. The group features Michael Occhipinti, Mark Kelso, Kevin Turcotte, Roberto Occhipinti and singers Laila Biali, Elizabeth Shepherd and Dominic Mancuso. Occhipinti says our familiarity with Lennon’s music is “kind of liberating from an arranger's point of view. “It’ll allow us to stretch out and alter the songs in different ways and open them up for improvising,” he explains. “And people will still be able to reference the original in their head. “I've had a lot of fun over the years with projects tackling the music of Bruce Cockburn and Pink Floyd, and for me it’s never been about replicating music but rather trying to reinvent it in a way that’s creative while still expressing an admiration for the source material.” The guitarist and leader of the Sicilian Jazz Project says the group’s biggest challenge is finding ways to make Lennon’s music sound fresh and original. “From a musical point of view, perhaps some of his later Beatles and solo songs are about the words more than the melody,” he says. “Lennon admitted that at times he could be quite happy repeating a single note or two, and those songs perhaps are trickier to recast as jazz tunes if one only fixates on the melody. “Luckily, we can either play with the melody or the many other aspects of the music, and it's really quite limitless,” Occhipinti adds. “My personal challenge is trying to make each arrangement a little different from the others, although when I listen to Beatles albums like Revolver that's exactly what I hear them doing, too.” Adding firepower to this homage’s eclectic vibe is Occhipinti’s choice of singers. Laila Biali, Elizabeth Shepherd and Dominic Mancuso are three of this city’s most distinct and diverse voices and this means you’re guaranteed to hear some utterly original music if you attend the show. “I wanted to work with them on this project because they’ll put their own stamp on whatever they sing, and they are such strong singers that I feel I can arrange the music however I wish and they will sing it beautifully,” he says. Not to put a damper on things but earlier this year, The Times of London remarked that much of Lennon’s "solo work was poor" and his genius “lay in doing the simple things well and having the complicated things in his head for other people to do for him." I ask Occhipinti what he thought of those comments. “Lennon did do simple things well, and he did get help in the studio piecing together complicated things like Strawberry Fields, but The Times fails to address the full picture of what he did. “I'm a guitarist, and people forget that Lennon was the first to record intentional feedback (on songs like I Feel Fine) ahead of Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend, or backwards tape guitar (on I'm Only Sleeping and Tomorrow Never Knows), and that a lot of what we identify as the Beatles ‘sound’ lies in his musicianship and creativity.” NOTE: The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Central United Church is at 131 Main St. Tickets are $20 and available by calling (905) 471-5299
- Errol Nazareth

"All That Markham Jazz"

The Toronto Sun

Friday, august 19, 2011

As someone who has attended festivals from Barbados to Bombay, I can attest to the fact that excellent venues and thoughtful programming always make for a funky goodtime. And that’s why, year after year, the Montreal Jazz Festival is declared an unprecedented success. Michael Occhippinti is under no illusion that theMarkham Jazz Festival, for which he serves as artistic director, can compete with the massive party in Montreal, but he’s doing an admirable job presenting an event that’s not just about concerts.“One feature that I introduced last year was having an Artist in Residence, with the idea that a particular musician would participate in the festival in multiple ways, so that they do more than simply fly into town, play a concert and leave,” Occhipinti says. “I want them to leave a lasting impact, and hopefully interact with local musicians and fans.” The acclaimed jazz clarinetist Don Byron was the Artist in Residence last year, and he performed with singer Sheila Jordan, his own group, and Ochippinti’s group, The Triodes, over three days. This year, Jeff Coffin is the Festival’s Artist in Residence. “Not only is Jeff a great saxophonist but he’s also a really dedicated educator who loves doing clinics and reaching out to young musicians,” Occhip-pinti says. “So, he’ll perform with his group, Mu’tet, on Saturday and Sunday; he’ll give a free clinic at the Varley ArtGallery on Sunday; and he’s making himself available for private lessons.”The Festival’s gala headliner,Gretchen Parlato, is also giving a free vocal clinic, and that should be one of the high-lights of the weekend.“She’s getting praise from people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and I want her to share her unique approach with anyone who wants to know what she does,”Occhipinti says.“Her clinic and Jeff’s are open to anyone because it’s important to reach out to fans as well as musicians. One thing that I’ve enjoyed whenever I’ve performed at jazz festivals in Vancouver and Guelph is that, along with concerts, they have workshops with the artists.“I’m thrilled we’re beginning to do similar things in Markham this year.”Occhipinti says that whilethe festival’s mandate is to celebrate all forms of jazz, his goal is to present musicians who haven’t been discoveredby other festivals.“Last year, we were the first to present Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet, a year ahead of their appearances at Lin-coln Centre and at the Montreal Jazz Festival. This year, we’re the first to present Gretchen in the GTA, and the Mu’tet is making its Canadian debut, too.”Unlike some programmers who feel the need to pack their events with marquee names, Occhipinti does his best to give local jazz musicians some love at his festival.“I really try to celebrate the best in Canadian music, especially artists who’ve received Juno awards or nominations,” he says, adding that he feels musicians who’ve won or been nominated are often neglected by festivals.“ So, we have 2011 Juno nominees Laila Biali, KellyleeEvans, and the Johnny Max Band performing.” As I mentioned earlier, a great venue plays a huge role in a festival’s success and Occhippinti feels the festival has it.“I think the setting we have(historic Main Street) is really conducive to getting people walking around checking out music, without having to go too far to get from one venueto another,” he says. “We’re on a much smaller scale, but that is one aspect of what makes Montreal such a successful festival.”For now, he can’t hold back his excitement for what’s to come.“Just looking at a small two-hour window on Sunday afternoon, you can hear a great jazz singer (Kellylee Evans), a Grammy-winning saxophonist (Jeff Cofn), spoken word/electronica (Lal), Turkish Fusion (Minor Empire), Brazilian crossover music (LuandaJones), and great modern jazz(Chris Tarry).“Where else can you do that in one afternoon with a short five-minute stroll between stages?” - The Toronto Sun

"Jazz Festival organizers think big this year"

Jazz is a big word, says guitarist Michael Occhipinti.

But that’s how the artistic director of Markham Jazz Festival likes to think — big.

“A festival is not just a gig.

“So why not expand your audience? I just want the quality to be really high,” Mr. Occhipinti said.

The 14th annual jazz festival will bring a diverse lineup of musicians to Main Street Unionville Aug. 19 to 21.

Once again, you can expect to hear some of the most interesting Canadian and American talents, with one of the three main stages dedicated to world music, including Brazillian, Klezmer, Turkish and Latin.

This may raise some eyebrows.

“What’s contentious for (jazz) purists is that world music is too far removed from the tradition,” Mr. Occhipinti said. “But Dizzy Gillespie (the late American jazz trumpeter) was doing Cuban music 50 years ago, so I say it’s already old news.”

Mr. Occhipinti, who has been nominated for Juno Awards multiple times, first came to Markham Jazz Festival under his own name when he brought his Sicilian Jazz Project here as one of the featured artists in 2009.

Last year, the guitarist and composer became the festival’s newest artistic director and introduced to regular festival attendees a small sample of world music.

This year, the McKay Art Centre Lawn and Wine Garden is a full-fledged world music stage, featuring groups including Toronto’s Montuno Police (with influences of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Arabic music), Aline Morales (the voice behind Ontario Tourism’s “There’s No Place Like This” commercials) and Zebrina (a Klezmer-jazz-fusion band).

Mr. Occhipinti said while people in the jazz world have passionate discussions about what jazz is, “It’s eclectic”, he said. “It’s freely borrowed from world music and back and forth.”

Aside from world music, Mr. Occhipinti has programmed an encore John Lennon Songbook tribute at the Millennium Bandstand Aug. 20.

Last December, the Markham Jazz Festival marked the 30th anniversary of Mr. Lennon’s death in Unionville with a concert featuring Mr. Occhipinti’s original arrangements of Lennon’s Beatle and solo career music performed by a group of musicians.

The group is in the midst of completing a recording. Members include Mr. Occhipinti (guitar), Laila Biali (vocals/piano), Elizabeth Shepherd (vocals), Dominic Mancuso (vocals), Roberto Occhipinti (bass) and Mark Kelso (drums and vocals), with special guest Jeff Coffin on saxophone.

Mr. Occhipinti said a free outdoor festival gives people a chance to be exposed to a wide range of music genres.

He said while different music branding can be narrow for marketing purposes, “It’s not our interest as human beings”.

The Markham Jazz Festival kicks off with a special gala concert at Markham Theatre Aug. 19, featuring pianist Bill Charlap, a renowned interpreter of the Great American Songbook, and newcomer vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

Tickets are $55 for this concert and there are still some available online.

For full festival lineup of free concerts all weekend long. - The Markham Economist and Sun - August 2011


The group has commenced recording its debut CD, to be released in spring 2012.



Shine On: the Universe of John Lennon is a spectacular group made of some of Canada’s most renowned musicians, performing music by John Lennon and the Beatles uniquely arranged by Michael Occhipinti. Featuring the wonderful and distinct voices of Laila Biali, Dominic Mancuso, and Elizabeth Shepherd, paired with the singular talents of Mark Kelso (drums), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Roberto Occhipinti (bass), and Michael Occhipinti (guitar), this unique group came together in December of 2010 for a special concert to mark the 30th Anniversary of John Lennon’s passing. Taking utter delight in the audience’s enthusiasm and the chance to work together performing an iconic repertoire, the musicians have commenced work on a recording to be released in spring 2012, and will be touring in support of this special project. Don’t miss the opportunity to present some of Canada’s most acclaimed artists, collectively nominated for over 20 JUNO Awards, working together to present music by a legendary songwriter.

Shine On - The Universe of John Lennon - Band Bios

Laila Biali
Laila Biali is fast becoming a major focal point of Canada's music scene. From touring with Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti and Paula Cole to recording with and supporting Sting on his If On a Winter’s Night tour, her resume precedes her. The past two years have seen a renewed focus on her skills as composer, arranger, singer and pianist. She takes the best of pop, rock, classical and soul, informs it with her knowledge of jazz and weaves it all into her musical arrangements seamlessly. Laila's music has been presented at prestigious venues spanning four continents including the North Sea Jazz Festival, Tokyo’s Cotton Club, Peru’s El Festival Internacional de Lima, and Carnegie Hall.  Her accolades include “SOCAN Composer of the Year” and “Keyboardist of the Year” at Canada’s National Jazz Awards, and her latest release Tracing Light received a JUNO nomination for “Best Vocal Jazz Album of the Year."

Mark Kelso
Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mark Kelso has made Canada his home for many years and is one of the country’s most in-demand musicians. He has played drums with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Mike Stern, Dave Holland, John Scofield, Dave Grusin, Vince Mendoza, Hilario Duran, Holly Cole, Carol Welsman, Molly Johson, Pat LaBarbera, Guido Basso and Chris Potter in the jazz field while also performing with such pop artists as Gino Vannelli, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Bublé and Marc Jordan. His ability to cover many different musical styles has enabled Mark to have such a successful career. Mark has played on over 220 recording projects as well as multiple TV shows, jingles, radio shows and movie soundtracks. A strong clinician he has also performed at many of the top drum festivals in North America. Mark is currently the head of Percussion at Humber College in Toronto.

Dominic Mancuso
Canadian born vocalist Dominic Mancuso has been exploring his Sicilian roots while building a successful career for himself in his native Toronto as an English language performer and composer. Comfortable singing in the older dialects that make up much of Sicily’s folk music, Dominic has also delved deeply into the work of Italy’s contemporary songwriters, and his mastery of this music is showcased on his 2010 JUNO winning CD Comfortably Mine. Dominic Mancuso is also involved in creating innovative multi-media concerts featuring the real-time projected visual work of his painter brother Vincent Mancuso, and the Mancuso brothers’ unique presentation of music and visual art has been featured at Nuit Blanche in Toronto.

Michael Occhipinti
An eight-time Juno Award nominee for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and guitarist/arranger for Shine On, Michael Occhipinti’s modern and eclectic approach to jazz and creative music of all kinds has earned him a broad array of listeners and the respect of critics and musicians alike. As a leader of