Sicilian Jazz Project at the Guelph Jazz Festival

I first heard of Michael Occhipinti through his work on the album Creation Dream – The Songs of Bruce Cockburn wherein he arranged 11 of Bruce Cockburn’s songs in Jazz form. Being such a die-hard Cockburn fan I was impressed with what Occhipinti had accomplished. He’s a gifted guitarist with a generous, dynamic and completely unassuming presence on stage.

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the first part of Michael Occhipinti’s 2pm Sicilian Jazz Project set in the free Jazz tent on Wyndham Street. The roots of this project stem from two sources: Occhipinti’s own search for his roots (musically and familially) in Sicily after the birth of his daughter and a recording of the 1954 field recordings of musicologists Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella. Michael (electric guitar) was joined by his brother Roberto (double bass), Domenic Mancuso (vocals and classical guitar), Maryem Tollar (vocals), Ernie Tollar (sax), Louis Simao (accordion) and Barry Romberg (drums). They were so awesomely amazing, beyond tight and entertaining to watch, I immediately bought the album when I left the tent.

The gig started with an accapella call and answer song (unfortunately not on the album) called/sung by Mancuso and answered/sung by the rest of the band in what I assume is a Sicilian dialect. He called out names of the players introducing the audience at the same time. Invigorating and an excellent start.

The first band song was called (I think) Chilobe and we were told it was a Tuna Fishing song by Michael. This was done in a traditional jazz form with each band member contributing a part. I enjoyed it but it paled in comparison with the next song.

The Almond Sorters was a song by women in the monotony of sorting almonds on flat pieces of rock. Lomax only recorded a few minutes of an hours long ballad and Occhipinti brilliantly arranges a wonderfully enchanting weave of melodies around the fragment beautifully sung by Maryem Tollar. Michael’s percussive guitar work at one point midway through (different on the album) really grabbed me! As did Ernie Tollar’s sax.

I could only stay for these first three pieces as I had committed myself to volunteering at a community table from the Guelph documentary film festival (Nov 6-8 this year) down the street for the rest of the afternoon.  I could only hear a little bit of the rest of his set.

Even though the one-of-a-kind magic I heard at the concert is not what you find on the album I would still wholeheartedly recommend it. I keep playing The Almond Sorters over and over again. Of course, if you have the opportunity to see Michael Occhipinti live you should definitely drop everything to do it.

I will see examples of the arrangement work of his brothers, David and Roberto, on Sept. 26 when my family and I see the Art of Time Ensemble’s Abbey Road concert. Can’t wait!


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