Happy International Jazz Day! I have to confess I'm not super driven to shoot video of myself playing jazz at home right now, I'm itching to move some air in the same space as someone else. So instead I offer this, ten musicians who directly changed my jazz life not named Occhipinti (because there's no question that my brother Roberto Occhipinti, and Peter, and my cousin David all helped shape my early interest in music):
In no particular order and for no particular reason (and to clear, this is a far from complete list that leaves out many of my closest musical friends - you know who you are), today I want to give a shout to these jazz folks:
1. Hugh Fraser. Hugh was the Artistic Director of the Banff Centre for the Arts, and when I auditioned to go there in my 3rd year at York University, I was itching to play some of my original music but I wasn't getting a lot of opportunity at school (that's not a diss, it's just that the ensembles were really about learning the standards/bebop repertoire so there wasn't really much of a chance to bring in original tunes). At the live audition, I played two original compositions, and Hugh was just over the top enthusiastic and told me what I was doing was exactly what Banff was after. That kind of affirmation meant so much to me, and going to Banff changed my whole outlook on the world (because there were so many great jazz players there from everywhere) and my own playing and what I wanted to do with my career (my two summer Banff workshops and one winter one would really demand a subcategory of influential musicians/instructors).
2. Kenny Wheeler. Ok, he was one of those Banff teachers, but no question that when I heard his Music For Large and Small Ensembles I was hooked, and though Ellington, and Gil Evans, and Mingus were also making me think about larger ensembles, Kenny's was the first big band I heard where the guitar was one of the front and centre melodic voices, but his writing was just his, beautiful and powerful.
3. Don Byron was a hero to Paul Neufeld and I for his Music For Six Musicians and his work with Bill Frisell, and he was at the top of our list when we thought about an ideal guest soloist for our group NOJO. Don was such an imaginative musician, and he really made me appreciate how a top level musician has the ability to shape music by the strength and uniqueness of their voice, and like a great hockey or basketball player, he made everyone around him play better too. Having Don play on multiple albums and tour with me has been a great stamp of approval that I continue to be honoured by.
4. Paul Neufeld. Speaking of NOJO, 5 JUNO nominated (1 winner) albums of original music don't happen without me becoming friends with Paul our first day at York University. Paul always flipped me cassette tapes of music he thought I should check out, and after university it was Paul who suggested we put together a rehearsal big band so that we could hear the big band music we'd written for our final assignments at York University. The early days of NOJO produced a lot music and some great press very quickly, and in large part that happened because Paul and I were a great team in terms of dreaming and then chasing our ideas by giving each other tasks to do and report to each other on.
5. Bernie Finkelstein (and by extension Bruce Cockburn)
Ok Bernie isn't a musician, but in 1998 he released NOJO You Are Here (with Don Byron) on True North Records. True North was of course known as the home of Bruce Cockburn (and many others), and not known as a jazz label, but Bernie was releasing some Lennie Breau recordings and thought that our music deserved to be heard and supported (and our producerJonathan Goldsmith deserves credit for connecting us to Bernie and for shaping four of the albums I did for True North). I don't think Bernie thought for a second he was going to make money from NOJO, but I guess he figured he wouldn't lose much either, and I loved that he was a fan and was motivated by his interest in our music. Not only did he help get NOJO way more attention and distribution than we'd ever had, but he gave us access to free CDs from the True North promo room.
6. The Toronto Guitar Scene (ok that's many people): We live in a pretty great guitar town. I saw Lenny Breau (thanks to my brother Roberto Occhipinti) at Bourbon Street when I was really too young to be there, and I stole some licks from Robbie Robertson before I realized what a guitar hero he'd been here in the early 60s before The Band went off to be The Band. I used to see Ed Bickert a lot at George's Spaghetti House (where I was briefly a busboy), and people like Rob Piltch or Ted Quinlan who I used to see a lot in different settings. I was lucky to have teachers like Carlos Lopes, Pat Coleman, Geoff Young, and Lorne Lofsky all of whom impacted me, though I guess I spent the most time with Lorne. I have to give a big shout out to Geoff actually, because I took lessons with him for a short while as I was trying to get ready for my university audition, and then one day he told me not to come back. It kind of threw me for a loop until I thought about it later, but he said "you don't need to take lessons, you know everything you need to know, you just need to go buy some records."
7. Jeff Coffin. When I first met Jeff many years back, it was for a spontaneous breakfast. Out of that first meeting we made plans to stay in touch and eventually make some music together, and I've appreciated his remarkable openness to creating music with so many different people and his generosity as an instructor, and if I had a bit of his energy I could maybe do it to the degree he does. His energy is infectious, and every time I play with him I feel like I'm pushed to come up with new stuff. And the group In Orbit, which came out of Jeff's usual annual stops here with Dave Matthews, is just a blast and connected me to Felix Xavier Pastorius, and Tom Reynolds, and Davide Direnzo.
8. Elizabeth Shepherd For most of my career I didn't really work with jazz singers much, but Elizabeth is so much more than that term describes anyway. She's a great writer, pianist, and bandleader, and over the last decade I've done so many wonderful tours with our various projects (and we would be heading out on one this summer if not for Covid).
I get to do some guitar stuff with her that I just don't get to anywhere else.
9. Barry Romberg. I used to love to go out and hear the Barry Romberg group (usually featuring guitarists like Geoff Young or Ted Quinlan or Mark McCarron), and it was a really big deal for me when I finally got to where I could hire him in my quartet, and the first tours I did were made a lot more fun by him being there and I learned a lot.
10. Time Warp. One of the bands my friends and I loved to go see when we were in university was Time Warp, under the direction of Barry Elmes and Al Henderson, and featuring Mike Murley and Kevin Turcotte (who replaced Bob Brough). Not only did I like the writing in the band (and I was impressed that they were a band doing original music), but it was where I discovered Mike's wonderful sax playing (I mentioned it was a big deal when Don Byron came into NOJO, but before that, when we were just getting going and nobody knew of us, it was a big deal for us that Mike Murley played on our first album). Kevin's trumpet playing impressed me so much that I've used him on pretty much every recording I've done.