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The Sicilian Jazz Project reached the audience's hearts (and made them dance)

Louis Simão's accordion added intensity and emotion to the music in Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Sicilian Jazz Project
Parc de l'imaginaire
Gatineau (secteur Aylmer), PQ
Festival de Jazz Desjardins
Saturday, July 27, 2013 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos of this concert

The Sicilian Jazz Project, which is back in Ottawa this weekend, demonstrated how well jazz can reach an audience's heart in a performance in an Aylmer park last summer.

Toronto vocalist Dominic Mancuso sang the entire concert in a dialect of Sicilian – but that didn't matter because the songs were about universals like love, work, discrimination, and celebration, and because of the sheer infectiousness, energy, and beauty of the music.

By the end of the show, most of the audience was singing along with Mancuso – and didn't have to stand for the final ovation because they had already got up to dance or sway to the music.

The project is the brainchild of Toronto jazz guitarist/composer Michael Occhipinti, and is based on his own Sicilian family heritage, as well as field recordings made by musicologist Alan Lomax in Sicily in 1954. But as with several of his other projects, Occhipinti used the original folk music only as a starting point, adding his own jazz sensibility, rhythms, arrangements, and improvisation to produce a highly listenable cross-cultural mix.

Originally, the project's music was strictly instrumental, but when Occhipinti met Mancuso (whose family is also originally from Sicily, but a different part of the island), it was quickly clear that his expressive voice added to the musical depth and the emotional impact.

The show opened with “Cialomi”, a tuna fishing chant. It started out a cappella with a call-and-return chant, followed by the musicians adding hand claps and urging the audience to join in. Then Occhipinti on electric guitar and Louis Simão on accordion started an infectious riff, and Kevin Turcotte soared over them on trumpet, and music's appeal was established.

“The Almond Sorters” was inspired by an epic tale of a young woman's tragic life. Its sad and evocative melody was initially expressed both by Simão's accordion and Mancuso's intense vocals. But then it moved from happy (bright trumpet rhythms) to sad again (a slow, full double bass solo by Michael's brother, Roberto Occhipinti) and then, as the trumpet called out, circled back to its initial tragic and romantic feel

“Cantu ri li schuggiatura”, a tribute to the workers who gleaned the last few ears of wheat out of the fields, comes from Occhipinti's ancestral home of Modica on the southern tip of Sicily. It was a striking piece in waltz time with long, extended phrasing in the vocals.

“Fave Amari (Bitter Beans)” was a bitterly funny account of the poverty in post-war Sicily, when men were paid in cans of beans instead of cash. Occhipinti said his own father was paid in this manner for his work as a stone mason rebuilding a church. Mancuso sang this piece physically and demonstratively, reaching up to heaven, looking up and down, and ending by miming running slowly against heavy winds. The music was similarly dramatic, with strong bass and drums under and trumpet accents, followed by an echoing solo by Simão.

“Nun ti lassu” was a sweet ballad with tear-jerking undertones. A slow guitar intro led into inviting and romantic vocals - but with a bit more bite than just crooning - underlined by accordion. Roberto Occhipinti's bass solo commenced with slow riffs but soon extended into the melody as well, again evoking the sorrow in the tune.

“a Staciuni” was another mixture of intensity and romanticism, beginning with Roberto Occhipinti's melancholy bowed bass intro together with Simão's hard riffs on accordion. Emphatic vocals – Mancuso reached out to the audience with splayed fingers – Turcotte's flexible trumpet solo and Occhipinti's fast and delicate guitar solo built up the tension. Finally, whole group got faster and faster before the song ended with a long trumpet line and strong applause.

A particular highlight was “The Sulphur Miner”, a dirge for the Sicilian miners who were used up and forgotten for their dangerous work. The combination of vibrating bowed bass, muted trumpet, and lamenting vocals created an almost unearthly feel. Each instrument echoed the melody, creating a feeling of intense sadness. The audience again strongly applauded.

The show closed with the joyful “Vitti 'na crozza”, a fast-paced number featuring vibrating trumpet, strongly sustained vocals, and growling electric guitar – and, in particular, a sinewy beat and a chorus that got everyone up dancing and singing.

Occhipinti released The Sicilian Jazz Project album in 2008 to critical acclaim, including a Juno nomination. Since then, he has been regularly touring it, mostly with the same group of musicians, and adding to its repertoire. The project's bandcamp page indicates he hopes to record a follow-up album in 2014.

This outdoor concert showed its appeal: a mixed francophone/ anglophone audience, who might not have ever heard Sicilian music and who could have left at any time, instead got totally involved in and excited by the 90-minute concert.

Missed it last summer? You can hear the most recent version of this music at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium on Saturday.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos of this concert

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All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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