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David Occhipinti: beyond categories

David Occhipinti ©Brett Delmage, 2004The January 14 concert in John Geggie's Invitational series will feature Toronto guitarist David Occhipinti and American trumpeter Ron Miles. While Miles appeared at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2010, Occhipinti has not been in Ottawa since a single concert with Roddy Ellias in 2009 (and a few jazz festival appearances before that).

Which has been Ottawa's loss, as Occhipinti has been continuing to compose for both his own and other groups. While his music has been described as chamber jazz, it crosses musical boundaries. It's neither loud nor flashy, but intricate and clear, and repays careful listening. Lately, while he is still actively playing jazz, he has moved more into the chamber music realm, composing for groups like the Madawaska String Quartet. This spring, he will unveil his own chamber music ensemble playing his compositions.

He is also part of a four-guitar jazz quartet, together with Roddy Ellias (Ottawa) and Ted Quinlan (Toronto), which will be presenting one of its first concerts in Ottawa in early March.

Occhipinti, who studied with jazz guitar innovator Jim Hall in the 1990s, teaches guitar and ensembles at the University of Toronto and Humber College. He has released four CDs leading his own quartet or trio: the most recent, Forty Revolutions (2007), was nominated for a Juno Award in the contemporary jazz category. He has also collaborated with saxophonist Mike Murley on two CDs: the first, Duologue, was nominated for a Juno Award in 2003.

And most importantly for Ottawa audiences looking forward to the Geggie concert, Occhipinti has a wealth of experience playing together with bass and trumpet, and in improvisation and experimentation. And a sense of humour...

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor spoke with Occhipinti eight days before the concert, talking about his background and non-jazz influences, his new material, how he has been affected by the Toronto music scene, and how he holds musical conversations. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What got you interested in playing the guitar?

David Occhipinti: I started piano when I was about nine. I always was a Beatles fan – well, I guess I still am. From the time I was born I guess until the time I was a teenager that's all I listened to, basically. I got Abbey Road when I was five. And Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" was something I wanted to learn on the guitar and then I started learning a few Beatles tunes on the guitar when I was about 12, and then really switched over to the guitar when I was about 13.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So what got you interested in jazz as opposed to the Beatles?

Occhipinti: Hmmm... I guess it was a slow transition: Beatles and then some progressive rock – Led Zeppelin, and Yes, and things like that – and then the guitarist Jeff Beck, he had an album Blow by Blow, which was actually produced by George Martin from the Beatles.

Then Pat Metheny was a nice transition, because he combined elements of rock and jazz in his playing, and it was nice that I got into him because I could relate to it a little more than some of the straight-ahead jazz at the time. And that was a good transition for me to get into more traditional things later.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So what made you want to go into music professionally?

Occhipinti: Again, the same artist, Pat Metheny had a record that I listened to called American Garage. For some reason I thought I could do something like that, write my own music, and play. And I knew some musicians, too: I had a teacher who was a professional and he was teaching and playing – kind of what I'm doing [now], teaching and playing, and composing.

to be beyond categories, that's what I'm aspiring to

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You've dedicated one song to Joni Mitchell [“Heart and Mind”, on Duologue Volume II with Mike Murley]. Was that also an influence?

Occhipinti: I'm a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I love her music. The albums, Blue and Shadows and Light – again, there was a connection with Pat Metheny there because he was on that record, and Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker. It was again combining folk with jazz with pop. It really has no definition. To me, Joni's music is just Joni's music. It defies all those categories.

And that's something I aspire to as well, to not have something that's just in one category. It may have influences from a few things, but it's really to be beyond categories, that's what I'm aspiring to. I think Miles Davis had that, too.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When I was relistening to your albums Intersection and Syzygy in the last few days, I was thinking "that's jazz, but it's not exactly jazz".

Occhipinti: Yes, and even more now with what I'm doing.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: For example, the piece on your website, “Status Fractus”, that you did with Barry Romberg: that piece seemed to overlap a lot with modern classical music.

Occhipinti: Yes, and the project I'm doing now is a chamber [music] project. I'm recording in a new CD in April/May, and it's chamber musicians. They're classical musicians and there's two people in the group who improvise regularly, but most of them are in the TSO (Toronto Symphony Orchestra) and whatnot. That's exciting for me because I can write anything for those people: they read all sorts of great stuff all the time. It will be great to write for them, and have my music played [by them], and so it will be more of a chamber music project.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Included in the musical pieces on your website were some extracts from the “Arts and Letters” piece that you composed at Banff last year. What was the inspiration for the title?

Occhipinti: Actually, [cellist and bassist] Andrew Downing had a group called Arts and Letters, but now he doesn't like that name. So I took the name. It's an homage to Stravinsky, in a way, too: it's neo-neo-classical.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Yes, I listened to that piece, and I thought, "That's The Rite of Spring". Not that it was exactly that, not that I've heard it before, but there's a call-back.

Occhipinti: (laughing) No, you've heard it before. It's OK. I think I was trying to do an impression of Stravinsky. I should just dedicate it to Stravinsky.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So the music that you're doing with the chamber group, did it come out of the work you did at Banff last year?

Occhipinti: Yes, I've been writing for the last four or five years developing the material for this, and I'm really excited about it. Some of it's string quartet and guitar, and some of it will be basically four strings plus clarinet, bassoon, and marimba – that's the new instrumentation for my project.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The marimba not being your typical classical instrument?

Occhipinti: That's true, too, but I also listen to Frank Zappa's music and he seemed to incorporate the marimba quite a bit, and I always liked that about his music. Marimba and xylophone: he incorporated it. I guess contemporary music has more marimba in it.

So I'm definitely influenced by a lot of classical music and new music, although I don't consider this project I'm making to be a new music project: it's just my version of new music. And it has improv, too: I'm going to be improvising a bit. It will be a mash of stuff: again, to get back to the discussion of beyond categories, that would be nice. Just music for the sake of music, and not worry how to sell it or package it or any of that stuff.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Roddy Ellias, whom you played with a few years ago in Ottawa, put out a chamber music CD last year.

Occhipinti: Beautiful! I love that CD. And actually I just started a guitar quartet with Roddy. There's an Ottawa connection with him, too, now. That's pretty exciting. In fact, we just recorded a demo two weeks ago, and I'm just mixing it.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about Jim Hall. What kind of influence did he have on your work?

Well, he's a mentor, a role model. He's doing all the things I wish I could do. I wish I could play the guitar as well as him, and be as sensitive and listen to people the way he listens, and supportive. And he's a great composer, too: his album, Textures: this whole idea of doing the chamber thing really comes from listening to Textures. So he's a huge influence on me and my music.

I was basically stalking Ed Bickert for a little while. I was at every gig; wherever he was playing, I was there. I just felt spiritually uplifted when I heard him.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You've played with a lot of major musicians on the Toronto jazz scene.

Occhipinti: And minor...

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Would you say that the Toronto jazz scene has had a big influence on you?

Occhipinti: Sure! Just speaking of the guitar alone, in this city we have [had] Ed Bickert, who I went to see at least a hundred times live. Lorne Lofsky is an amazing guitarist: I love his playing. There are many: Reg Schwager's another, Ted Quinlan. Ted's also in the guitar quartet. They're just wonderful players, and to be surrounded by all these [players]. Just the guitar alone in Toronto is pretty deep, I think.

And I've travelled to different parts of the world, and people know about Ed Bickert, and I wish more people knew about Lorne because he's so wonderful.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Yes, I heard Lorne play with Roddy a few years ago and it was wonderful. I envy you having heard Ed Bickert live: I've only heard him on his CDs.

Occhipinti: Yes, I'm really lucky. A lot of my students say that too: they wish they'd heard him.

I was basically stalking him for a little while. I was at every gig; wherever he was playing, I was there. I just felt spiritually uplifted when I heard him. That's the kind of effect he had on me, besides all the wonderful chords and tasteful playing. I just felt uplifted when I heard him. There's not a lot of people who bring that out in their music. Jim Hall is another one that makes you feel that – and it's not flashy, it's deep.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You've played with musicians like Andrew Downing and Mike Murley over a number of albums. Does that help you develop intuitions about how they're going to play?

Occhipinti: Definitely. And the players you mention, along with [drummer] Terry Clarke, are very intuitive players – and they listen really well. So playing with like-minded people helps you to develop your music, and to listen better. I really learned a lot from Mike Murley and Andrew and Terry Clarke, for sure. And Terry played with Jim Hall, and it's amazing to be part of that.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: During your duets with Mike Murley, how much is composed, and how much is improvised in each performance?

Occhipinti: With Mike, we usually have a tune that we're based on: we don't play free as much. I guess the middle sections are improvised where we solo, and we solo together, too. and that's my favourite thing to do with Mike – to play counterpoint lines with him. It's really fun: it's like we'd be doing if we were just hanging out, having a conversation, and we'd be  back and forth, and that's what playing with him is like, is like having a musical conversation. It's improvised in that sense, too: you don't know what's going to happen but you're just in the moment. You have the tune as a reference: it's a framework.

But I do enjoy playing free as well, where there is no harmony – where you really don't know what's going to happen next. That's fun, too. I don't know how much fun it is to listen to, but it's really fun to do.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I love to listen to that, when people are good at it, and fearless about it.

Occhipinti: That's another Jim Hall quality: he's fearless, and loves to play free. He's great at it.

David Occhipinti jams with John Geggie at the 2004 Ottawa Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Have you ever played with John Geggie before?

Occhipinti: Just at jam sessions, when I was in Ottawa for the Festival, which I guess is playing, but it's not as intimate as this next week's concert is going to be. It's just three of us, no drums, so it will be nice and quiet. And you'll be able to hear the nuances of the instruments: sometimes it's nice to play without drums for that reason, because you can hear the guitar pick on the strings, you can hear the breath from the trumpet. You can hear more of the subtleties that get lost sometimes when there's a cymbal crashing away.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When you're playing without drums, do you find you take a different role?

Occhipinti: Yes, I do. I almost feel that sometimes when I'm strumming the guitar, I feel like I suppose how a drummer would feel. You can create dynamics when you're strumming like a ride cymbal on the drums. I feel like I can shape the music when I'm accompanying more.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You haven't played with Ron Miles before, have you?

Occhipinti: No, that's going to be exciting! He has a duo record with Bill Frisell: I'm excited to hear that. I have him on at least one or two Bill Frisell records, so I've heard him in that context. I don't know his playing really well, but he strikes me as someone who's going to be a real team player, and listens. I just have a feeling there's going to be a lot of connection possibilities with him – just the little bit I've heard.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I noticed that you had trumpeter Kevin Turcotte playing with you on the Forty Revolutions tour, so you've had experience playing with a trumpeter over an extended period of time.

Occhipinti: Yes, and Kevin: he's one of the great musicians in this country, that's for sure. He's actually a big Ron Miles fan. He's going away to Chile, otherwise he said he would have come with me to hear the concert, because he loves Ron Miles. He was really excited to hear I was going to be playing with him.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are you going to be contributing some of your own compositions to the concert?

Occhipinti: I am. I sent four of them to both John and Ron, and we'll see. Hopefully they're not too difficult or too much trouble to learn, and we'll play them, or we'll play a couple of them, and see what happens. I'm not sure what we're playing: I haven't received any music yet, which also adds to the nerves. I like to know what we're going to do, and have a look at it beforehand and get familiar with it and internalize it a bit. I don't really want to just show up and sight-read: it doesn't always make for the best experience for me. I'm a guitar player: sight-reading isn't really my forte.

What I thought that Jim Hall was doing was reading people's minds when he was playing, and I suppose I'm trying to do that, as unsuccessful as it is at times.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How do you approach playing with musicians you haven't played with very often?

Occhipinti: Again, it's about listening. What I thought that Jim Hall was doing was reading people's minds when he was playing, and I suppose I'm trying to do that, as unsuccessful as it is at times. You try and get in their heads a little bit, see where they're going to go, Of course, familiarity is nice, like when you mentioned Mike Murley and Andrew, we've played together so much that I really do feel like we read each others' minds sometimes. With both those guys, we've played the exact same phrases at the exact same time; it's happened more than once. Beyond coincidence at this point.

When you haven't played with someone before, you want to create that connection, but with some people it's possible and some it isn't. And hopefully you keep hanging out with the people you do connect with. But when you haven't played with them and you have to put on a concert, you just make the best of it.

I have a good feeling about this concert, and I think there's going to be some of that connection I'm talking about.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: With your recent work, including with Barry Romberg's Large Ensemble, what do you find are the challenges of composing for a larger ensemble?

Occhipinti: That's a good question. How to say this without sounding silly – there's more air moving; there's more people moving air. The nice thing about the small groups – the intimacy, the connection – to have that with so many people is really challenging. But if you can have it, it's wonderful. I think it's more of a challenge to create that connection. With Barry's group – and I haven't played in that group for years now – when we were doing it, it was challenging with all the different people and everything.

It should be a little easier with my chamber group because, again, there's no drums, so we have to be responsible for the rhythm – not that you're not [responsible] when there is drums, but even more so.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The chamber group: are they all classical musicians?

Occhipinti: Andrew Downing is the bassist. He's the first person I asked to be involved in this. I really had to have him.

The rest are pretty much classical players. I do have a young violinist who's going to be in the string quartet: her name is Aline Homzy. She's from Montreal; she's still going to Humber, but she's wonderful and she's an improviser too, and I might get her involved with improvising. And Andrew's an improviser, obviously, and can read and play great chamber stuff as well.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're doing the chamber project in the April time frame ...

Occhipinti: I'm doing it at the Glenn Gould Studio here in Toronto April 30.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: ... and you've got the four-guitarist project with Roddy Ellias: what's the time frame on that one?

Occhipinti: Just getting it off the ground; we just got the demo [recorded]. The demo is so we can maybe put on a concert next year sometime, and then think about recording after that. We'll do a few concerts first, though. We're actually playing in Ottawa on March 3.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So is there anything else you're working on?

Occhipinti: (laughing) Isn't that enough?

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You never know with some musicians ...

Occhipinti: I'm working as hard as I can. I'm cooking eggs while I'm talking to you. I feel like that sometimes: I have to multi-task. I'm a dad, too, and that's very important to me. I'm trying to be there as much as possible for my daughter: now she's six and a half.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: And you teach at Humber and U of T...

Occhipinti: I teach at Humber, U of T, and I'm doing my Masters this year at York. So I am doing enough now.

It's exciting for me to talk about new stuff [I'm doing], rather than old stuff too much. I really am someone – I never listen to my own recordings or anything. Once I've done it, I've done it, and I move on. And I feel like I'm moving into some different territory now, so it's exciting.

    – Alayne McGregor