June 2008

Michael Occhipinti Sicilian Jazz Trio
at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival
June 24, 2008 Mezzetta Toronto
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.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Tova G. Kardonne
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