Volume 92, Issue 82
Thursday, March 4, 1999
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
NOJO sands jazz grain
©Gazette file photo
DOWN ON THE FARM, IT'S ALL ABOUT MILKING THE COWS AND PLAYING THE SAX. Paul Neufeld (top left) and Michael Occhipinti (top right) are joined by Don Byron (top middle) on their CD You Are Here and by the rest of the Jazz Orchestra for a night of music tomorrow at Althouse College.
By Terry Warne
"I have two problems with the jazz scene," says Michael Occhipinti of the Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra.
"One is the word 'jazz' because it's become pretty meaningless. What does it mean? Does it mean Louis Armstrong? Does it mean us? Anthony Braxton?"
It's this candour which has possibly alienated NOJO from certain "traditional" elements within the jazz community. Occhipinti feels, however, his second problem with the jazz scene is much more serious.
"When you walk into a record store," he begins, "all the prominent rack space is dominated by dead people. The record companies are pumping out those Miles Davis and John Coltrane CDs really cheaply. These artists aren't owed anything anymore so the record companies are just profiting." Occhipinti concludes his rant with one succinct statement. "I think jazz as an industry is shooting itself in the foot."
Besides speaking his mind, Occhipinti is also known for being one half of a duo some critics have lauded for expanding the jazz horizon. Occhipinti and his partner Paul Neufeld head up the 16-member NOJO, one of the few big jazz bands around. Asked whether he thinks NOJO is redefining jazz or extending the boundaries of music, Occhipinti hesitates.
"We may in fact be doing those things, but we don't dwell on it. We wanted to be composer driven. With each piece we write, we push ourselves and try and come up with something new," Occhipinti states. "I pay the rent by playing jazz standards, but it's also nice to know you're writing music relevant to your own experience and maybe that's why it sounds fresh to some people."
Occhipinti says there are no egos within the group. All of the musicians have a lot of freedom and he and Neufeld are always open to suggestions. NOJO incorporates many improvisational sections within their songs, including areas where the entire band improvises together.
Winner of the 1996 Juno Award for "Best Contemporary Jazz Album," NOJO has been nominated a third time in the same category for their last effort You Are Here. Occhipinti cultivates much satisfaction from being nominated because it means his band is speaking to a large cross-section of people. Does he feel vindicated in light of some criticism from the traditional jazz community?
"We're vindicated to some extent, but more than the Junos we're vindicated by the number of popular jazz musicians that have played with us guys like Don Byron, Joe Lovano and Ray Anderson."
For a long time, NOJO could not get a jazz label to give them a record deal. Finally, before the release of their last album, they signed with True North Records, home of folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn. This has been an ideal situation for NOJO. While they achieved success independently, the record label has given their career a definitive kick in the ass. "Since we signed with True North, we've had a lot more press, we have been played on the radio a lot more and we're much more available across Canada."
NOJO has also redefined the method by which jazz musicians pay their dues. "In jazz there's sort of an apprenticeship process. As a young musician you begin to get a name and some older player takes you under their wing because you need that stamp of approval."
Occhipinti insists the band is just out to have a good time and create music which appeals to them. "We've never scared an audience, we're pretty user-friendly, we're fun to watch and we have a good time."
Copyright © The Gazette 1999