The Occhipinti Brothers bring their array of eclectic influences to the Toronto Jazz Festival stage

Sunday isn’t officially “Occhipinti Day” at the 35th Annual Toronto Jazz Festival, but it should be.

The Toronto brothers own the late-afternoon slots of the TD Main Stage: bassist Roberto Occhipinti performs with pianist Adrean Farrugia and drummer Larnell Lewis to introduce his latest project, “The Next Step,” before joining guitarist Michael Occhipinti and Montreal singer Elizabeth Shepherd for ES:MO, the Juno-nominated duo promoting their recent album, “The Weight of Hope.”

The Occhipinti siblings have been part of the local jazz scene for decades, entertaining audiences live and recording in various setups. Roberto, 67, owns, operates and is a record producer for Modica Music, and he performs with the Soul Stew ensemble, the 106 Collective Quartet, pianist Hilario Durán, and had a long stint as part of the Banda Brava by Memo Acevedo.

Meanwhile Michael, 55, delivers shows for Hugh’s Room Live and teaches jazz at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Humber College, and guitar and pop at Centennial College. He recently won a Juno Award for his participation in the global jazz band Avataar. He is part of the 16-piece big band Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra (with Paul Neufeld), the funk group Grooveyard, the Turkish ambient group Minor Empire and, with his brother, the Triodes and the Sicilian Project.

His solo records provided jazz interpretations of pop music, including “Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon” and “Creation Dream: The Songs Of Bruce Cockburn”.

The two brothers collaborated with Ottawa singer and songwriter Cockburn.

“I’ve known Bruce since he played in high schools,” Roberto said as he and Michael sat down at a picnic table on a recent sunny day at the Shops at Don Mills. “He was 24 and I was opening for him. I worked a lot with his producer at the time, a guy called Jon Goldsmith.

The brothers grew up in a musical family with the radio on all the time, where they were influenced by their brother Peter, now a retired guitarist, and their cousin David, also an accomplished guitarist.

But Michael didn’t start on the guitar. His first love was the clarinet.

Turning ?

“I got him a job at (the old jazz club) George’s Spaghetti House as a busboy,” Robert said. “He got to listen to Ed Bickert and Moe Koffman.”

“It made me a very eclectic musician, Michael said. “I also took the path of punk and new wave. When I was a teenager, I was the only child at home. We occupied the basement and we played a lot. My cousin David and I – we went to Victoria Park High School together – so we started playing jazz standards at lunchtime.

But Michael didn’t realize he would make music his life until he went to college.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to study music,” he said. “I went to York (University), met my friend Paul Neufeld and we started the big band. For me, it was really important because nobody else in my family had a big band… I could do something that belonged to me.

“I think it took me until I was 30 to figure out how to play guitar, but big band was good for my songwriting.”

Roberto’s story is different: he fell in love with the acoustic bass at an early age, one of his specialties became Cuban jazz. He first learned salsa after a stint with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but it was much later that he said he had an epiphany.

“Before going to Winnipeg, I went to the Juilliard School of Music and went to New York for a week, to my friends,” he said. “I ended up not going to Juilliard because I couldn’t afford it — I took the job with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra instead — but while I was there I stayed at Spanish Harlem during the Fania All-Stars years, so I heard the salsa music of Rubén Blades, Héctor Lavoe: the heyday of salsa in New York.

“I recorded everything on tape and listened to them when I was in Winnipeg. When I came back, my friend’s brother was playing in a salsa band and they always needed bass players.

“After a while I realized I had an affinity for salsa, so I started playing with Memo Acevedo. But the crucial moment came when I went to Cuba with my friends Hilario Durán and Jane Bunnett — I realized I didn’t know anything and I learned a lot.

“Sometimes jazz can be too intellectual for people, but when there’s a groove underneath, you can play anything over it.”

Roberto and Michael worked together sporadically. For “The Sicilian Jazz Project”, Roberto gave Michael a CD of Italian music recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

“It was interesting because it was music recorded by Alan Lomax in Modica (Italy) – where our father grew up – and the same year he emigrated. It was music that our father would have heard” , Roberto said. “So I gave it to Michael and he went to town with it.”

The album was nominated for a Juno Award in 2009, along with Roberto’s album “A Bend in the River”.

“We both lost,” Michael said.

For his recent project “The Next Step”, Roberto decided to take advantage of the Modica Music studio which had remained empty during the pandemic.

“I sold the building and the studio just sat there doing nothing, so I thought I’d switch gears and start recording stuff,” he explained. “It worked really well during COVID because we could do physical distancing. We did (guitarist) Lorne Lofsky’s records. I had friends who called me and wondered if they could come, because people wanted to play. So I liked 10 different trios.

“I basically have 10 albums in the box. With jazz records, it’s not that bad. The secret is to have a group of guys who know how to play, put a microphone in front of them, record and to go home.

While “The Next Step” took hours to record, ES:MO’s “The Weight of Hope” – which also features Roberto on acoustic bass – took three years.

“We started it at the Banff Center for the Arts because we were on tour,” Michael said. “The idea was that it was just Elizabeth and me but, thanks to the pandemic, we had the chance to listen to everything again and think, ‘Well, it would be nice to add some bass or drums to this track…and this one…’

“She lives in Quebec, so there were times (due to provincial border closures) when I couldn’t go visit her to record or play together. The advantage was that we had to take our time with it, and we did some at my brother’s studio and also with David Trevor-Smith, our engineer, at his house, so it became a much more arranged record .

Although he released many of these projects – including ES:MO’s “The Weight of Hope” – on his Modica Music label, Roberto Occhipinti is resigned to the fact that he won’t sell too many copies, in part because streaming is so popular.

“Basically all records are vanity projects now,” he said. “Unfortunately, after a while, my vanity caught up with my checkbook.”

But both Michael and Roberto said they got into the business out of love and curiosity.

“Part of doing all these things is curiosity, what interests you,” Roberto said. “I don’t play any music with the idea that I might succeed or that it might give me financial success. You’re just going down the rat hole for something you really love.

“People say, ‘You play music like a Cuban’ and I say, ‘No, I play this music with my accent.’ I can only speak my language, my way, and everything I do is based on the fact that I’m a jazz musician.

Michael echoed the sentiment.

“It’s something that makes us feel young, retaining that curiosity, that restlessness to do other projects. If you’re making music three decades later, you’re successful.


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