Canadian jazz, Sicilian soul

Michael Occhipinti (guitar) and the Sicilian Project.| Photos courtesy of Michael Occhipinti.

Michael Occhipinti (guitar) and the Sicilian Project.| Photos courtesy of Michael Occhipinti.

Guitarist, composer and arranger, Michael Occhipinti excels at making his guitar gently waver between technical styles and genres with progressive precision, all while letting his own personality shine through.

Occhipinti is currently on tour with the Sicilian Jazz Project, a band that showcases Occhipinti’s heritage through jazz-fusion and features the Italian vocalist, Pilar. The Sicilian Jazz Project plays at the Cultch Historic Theatre on Nov. 25.

When past meets passion

The Sicilian Jazz Project originated when Occhipinti made a family trip to Modica, a town on the southern end of Sicily where his parents grew up and much of his extended family still lives. After the trip, Occhipinti took to studying the work of musicologist and world folk song promoter
Alan Lomax in order to better understand the Sicilian sound.

“Alan Lomax and his father, John, would go out into the Appalachians and the fields and record music that they thought would die out,” explains Occhipinti.

Occhipinti rearranged some of the Lomax recordings, and in 2009 the Sicilian Jazz Project released their first album. Other than Occhipinti himself, the line-up for the band has always been fluid. However, one important contribution came in the form of Occhipinti’s brother, Roberto. Roberto produced and played bass on the record, making this band the sibling’s first project together.

Connecting to Sicily

The Sicilian Jazz Project’s second album landed in 2015 after Occhipinti took a four-month fellowship in Sicily, living only a few kilometres from Modica. During this immersive time, Occhipinti took every opportunity he could to meet the members of the community, play music with others and indulge in local specialty chocolates.

The album is titled Muorica, the proper Sicilian name for the town, and features a 40-page book with pictures, song explanations, recipes and more. Occhipinti wrote mostly original music, taking many lyrics from well-renowned Sicilian poets.

Pilar, a pop/jazz vocalist based out of Rome, decided to contribute her own sound to Muorica. The energy and emotion she contributes to the group is prominent in the album’s opening track, Amuninni Razzietta, a song about Occhipinti’s parents going out dancing on the weekend.

“She has a lot of electricity!” says Occhipinti. “Every gesture she makes and every glance she gives – she is so immersed in the music.”

The Sicilian dialect, which Occhipinti learned from his parents, is wielded beautifully throughout the music. While it wasn’t Occhipinti’s intention to preserve this nearly extinct way of speaking, he wants to acknowledge the reverence those in Sicily still have for it as well as the unique impact it had on his life.

“I have this language but I have no one to speak it with,” says Occhipinti. “You have to incorporate your own thing, then the song and the language is alive in the present tense.”

An origin of sound

Growing up in Toronto, Occhipinti was exposed to a large array of musical genres through his father’s adoration for opera and his mother’s desire for hip-hop. His two older brothers, already established musicians before Occhipinti even picked up a guitar, fulfilled their brotherly duties by taking him out to jazz clubs and symphonies at a young age.

Occhipinti began his musical quest at age 13 when curiosity reached a tipping point and he practiced with his first guitar. Occhipinti developed his talents quickly and traversed many genres before going to school and turning his passion into musical professionalism.

“I loved practicing [guitar], unlike all my friends in high school,” says Occhipinti. “I was actually in a pop band for a time and we were very serious about writing pop music.”

When the Sicilian Jazz project comes to Vancouver, it is a commemorative stop on the Canadian tour as this great city is home to the person that originally connected Occhipinti to Pilar. Occhipinti is grateful for friends and acquaintances like these, understanding the significance other people can have on one’s career.

“You throw a pebble in the pond to create ripples and the more pebbles, the more ripples,” states Occhipinti. “Just having these connections creates opportunities.”


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