S is for Sicily

The Green Door Presents Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Project at Centre 64, Kimberley,  July 13, 2017, 7:30 pm

Pilar, Tony, Michael and Scott

It is a long way from Sicily to Toronto and it is even further to Kimberley in the back blocks of British Columbia. Never-the-less, Michael Occhipinti (guitar) and his band of musicians, including the vocalist  Pilar (all the way from vacation land in Sardinia) and Toronto bassist Scott Kemp traveled west and managed to hook up  with the Kootenay’s “go-to” drummer Tony Ferraro for the Western Canadian tour of Michael’s The Sicilian Project. This is Michael’s nod to his Sicilian cultural roots featuring a healthy dose of folkloric musical themes and stories from the island of Sicily. Actually it is more than a nod. It is a full blown cultural experience that has nothing to do with the popular images of Sicily as presented in the novels of Mario Puzo and Director Francis Ford Coppola 1972 films of The Godfather. This was a wonderful evening of Sicilian culture as seen through the eyes and memories of Michael Occhipinti, his family and his extended visits to the Island. It was Sicilian culture with a twist. There is no way that Michael could deliver an undiluted portrayal of today’s Sicily or even the Sicily of yester-years. Michael is Canadian so it goes with out saying his perceptions of his parents homeland’s poetry and music is colored by his everyday Canadian experiences. That is not a bad thing, and as cultures change and evolve that it is probably the way it should be. Having said that, what the audience got was an evening filled with music, stories, language and humor. The music and musicianship was first class. Michael is one of Canada’s finest guitarists and to quote his website “Michael Occhipinti is a versatile, sound-sculpting guitarist and composer/arranger, who has spent decades freely moving between jazz, chamber music, world music, r&b/funk, and anything involving modern guitar sounds.  He is a nine-time JUNO Award nominee and leads several acclaimed groups including The Sicilian Project, Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon, The Triodes, and the 16-piece group NOJO (Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra. This barely scratches the surface of some of his current projects and collaborations. Surely one of his most successful endeavors  is his current collaboration is with the the Italian vocalist Pilar. What can one say? Well she is so, so, so ……… European and that is so refreshing in today’s homogeneous music scene. Tony Ferraro is from Trail and as they say in Trail you are either “a Mac or a Macaroni” ( ie. either a Scot or Italian) so I guess he has a legitimate Italian connection. Scot Kemp is a sessions musician in Toronto so he has the unique skills needed to fit into Michael’s projects.

Here is the set list for the evening: Set 1

1 Di Pugno Tuo
2 Sacciu chi parla a la Luna
3. Cherchez La Femme
4. Nun ti lassu
5. Per tutto L’inverno
6  Muorica
7. Amuninni Razzietta

Set 2
1. Il Colore Delle Vene
2 Lingua e Dialettu
3. Suzanne
4 Last Day at the Beach
5. Autoctono Italiano
6. Vitti ‘na Crozza

With the exception of Muorica, Amuninni Razzietta and Lingua e Dialettu  from the CD MUORICA  for me the music is entirely new. However, nestled in the set list is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and until you hear Pilar’s version sung in Italian, backed by Michael’s artificial guitar harmonics and Tony’s subtle mallets on drum kit you have not yet lived. This has to be a definitive performance.

It was a wonderful concert that was only marred by the exceptionally poor stage  lighting. I am a photographer and I can be critical of stage lighting so I tend to complain about these things. I know it is a balancing act for stage directors to keep in mind the desire of musicians not to be blinded by the heat and the “in your face” lights, the needs of the audience to see the action on stage and the desire for atmospheric lighting to enhance the performance. However, the lighting system in Centre  64 is excellent and for this performance it was not used to an optimum advantage.  I did capture some images but it was struggle on the very edge of what was photographically possible without resorting to using a flash. Here are some images from the evening.

                    

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YouTube pick (#16) – Another way to play Mandolin

Mandolin music has a long European history that is usually associated with Italian  Neapolitan music. When the instrument migrated to North America in the early part of the twentieth century it underwent some physical changes. The traditional round back gave away to relatively thin flat backed instruments in a number of shapes (A-Style; F-Style and others). The most famous of these North American instruments were those designed by Lloyd Allayre Loar. He was a sound engineer and master luthier  with the Gibson company in the early part of the 20th century. His instruments, including the famous F5 model mandolin, are expensive ($100,000 +) and are much sort after instruments that have become associated with Bill Monroe and Bluegrass music. The mandolin “chop” that emulates the back beat of a snare drum is one of the most characteristic sonic signatures of Bluegrass music.

 

Now, theoretical physicists have often held sway with the notion that there are multiple simultaneous universes that can  co-exist. The notion does stretch the mind somewhat but in the world of mandolin music it almost seems that it is a possibility. While the Neapolitan mandolin migrated to North America, underwent physical changes and came to prominence in the hands of unique virtuosos like Bill Monroe, a similar but different transformation was taking place half a world away in Brazil. The mandolin in Brazil probably came out of Portuguese traditions and became rooted in a musical style called Choro. Although contemporary flat backed styles of mandolin are used in Brazil  the Portuguese instrument also underwent changes. An extra course of strings was added to a slightly larger body with a wider neck. The result is a five course instrument called a Bandolim (pictured below) that is tuned C G D A E.

North America has Bill Monroe; Brazil has Jacob do Bandolim. As documented in Wikipedia, he was born under the name Jacob Pick Bittencourt (December 14, 1918 – August 13, 1969). He adopted a stage name to reflect the the name of the instrument he played, the Bandolim. He has become intimately associated with Choro, a genre also popularly known as chorinho (“little cry” or “little lament”). This popular Brazilian genre is a musical synthesis of European salon music and Brazilian rhythms. As a  perfectionist, Jacob was able to achieve from his band Época de Ouro the highest levels of quality. Jacob hated the stereotype of the “dishevelled, drunk folk musician” and required commitment and impeccable dress from his musicians who, like himself, all held “day jobs.” Jacob worked as a pharmacist, insurance salesman, street vendor, and finally notary public, to support himself while also working “full time” as a musician. In addition to his virtuoso playing, he is famous for his many choro compositions, more than 103 tunes, which range from the lyrical melodies of “Noites Cariocas” , Receita de Samba and “Dôce de Coco” to the aggressively jazzy “Assanhado“, which is reminiscent of  bebop. He also researched and attempted to preserve the older choro tradition, as well as that of other Brazilian music styles. Outside of Brazil Choro seems to be under going a surge of interest. The Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen has recently released a number of new recordings with the Trio Brasileiro. The trio  features Dudu Maia on Bandolim; Alexander Lora on Pandiero (the driving Brazilian samba tambourine that is the heart beat of Brazilian music) and his brother Douglas Lora on seven string nylon guitar. Below is a YouTube clip of the Trio and a clip of David Benedict playing a Choro on a more familiar North American style Mandolin. Notice how different are the sounds coming from the Mandolin and the Bandolim. The mandolin seems to have a sharper, more percussive “bite” that fits so well into Bluegrass. The Bandolim seems, at least to my ear, to have a bigger, fuller sound that probably would not work in a Bluegrass setting.

So if you are a mandolin player and find the music attractive you should check out the Mel Bay publication Choro Brasileiro – Brazilian Choro: A Method for Mandolin by Marilynn Mair and Paulo Sa (MB21975BCD). The publication includes a CD.

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Poscript: I sent a link of this blog entry to the Hornby Island luthier Lawrence Nyberg to find out if he had any any interest in the Bandolim. As it turns out he has been experimenting with the instrument and has posted the following on his face book page.

Introducing: The Mini-Cittern. The newest in the mando-cittern line-up. Available as a flat or carved-top. Flat-top,…

Posted by Nyberg Instruments on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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YouTube Pick (#15) – Lee Ritenour and Mike Stern

The best and the worst thing that has ever happened to guitar music has been  “the invention of electricity”. On the plus side, before guitarists could plug in the guitar was, and still is, a very quiet instrument with very limited dynamic range  and sustain. On an acoustic guitar, a note struck does not travel far and does not last long and in a group setting it is quickly overpowered by other instruments. In the days before amplification acoustic guitarists were forced to play very hard and as a result the sound coming from the instrument suffered. Even today Blue Grass flat pickers who prefer to play  hard and fast without plugging in run the risk of not being heard or ending up with a crappy sound. Electricity changed all of that. From the get go an amplified guitar could now hold its own even in the big bands of the forties. Case in point listen to the recordings of Charlie Christian and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. As instruments and amplification systems improved the guitar came into its own with more volume, more sustain, more dynamic possibilities and with effect pedals more sonic possibilities. The sky was the limit and unfortunately that led to the false conclusion that more volume became equated as more, not necessarily good,  music.  The possibilities of increased  sustain and sonic effects are very useful tools that have often become completely obliterated by the shear power and volume of the modern electric guitar. That has become the down side. The temptation to continually crank up the volume has become hard to resist  and it has affected every body. Drummers, bass players, keyboards are now all capable of immense volume and the result, often, is that musicality and nuance have gone out the door. If every body plays super loud there is no musical room to move.  Having said all that there are still examples out there of loud electric guitar music well worth listening to. This YouTube of Lee Ritenour and Mike Stern at the Tokyo Blue Note is right up there with great interplay between the two guitarists and with the great supporting musicians in Freeway Jam Band. The band features Simon Phillips on drums (that must be the biggest drum kit on the planet), John Beasley on a mass of keyboards and Melvin Dasin on a gigantic seven string  electric bass. This is a long video, over an hour, so grab a beer and kick back for some great “electric” music. Now is it Jazz or is it rock? who cares?

For most of the listening public and despite many albums, awards and studio session both of these musicians are somewhat under the radar. Lee Ritenour was born January 11, 1952 in Los Angeles. At 16, he played on his first recording session, with  the Mamas and the Papas, and was given the nickname Captain Fingers for his dexterity. He was a a studio musician in the 1970s, winning Guitar Player magazine’s Best Studio Guitarist award twice. Throughout his career, Ritenour has experimented with different styles of music, incorporating funk, pop, rock, blues, Brazilian , classical and jazz . He has 41 solo albums to his credit and has played as a sideman on many, many hit records including Pink Floyd’s THE WALL. He was also a key member of the groups Fourplay and L.A. Workshop. In 2004 he brought together some of the key musicians of his career for the two disc DVD Overtime. For anybody who takes music seriously this DVD is a must view. Strictly speaking Lee is not specifically a jazz player. He exists in that commercial arena that straddles rock / pop / and studio work. He is a musical chameleon who manages to slip effortlessly into what ever role is required. It is probably the reason he doesn’t figure highly in the DownBeat Jazz Critics and Readers polls. He is probably not a pure enough Jazz player to be considered. It is a bit of a shame really because he has an unbelievably high skill level. Just to demonstrate his Jazz chops check the the two clips below of him in two groups playing Oliver Nelson’s masterpiece Stolen Moments. His 1990 solo album of the same name is one of my all time favorite Jazz Guitar recordings.

On the other hand Mike Stern (born January 10, 1953) has impeccable jazz credentials. Because he has a very non-jazz sound I find the the situation a little ironic and yet despite this he is a six-time Grammy-nominated American jazz guitarist. After playing with Blood Sweat and Tears he landed a gig with drummer  Billy Cobham, then with trumpeter Miles Davis from 1981 to 1983 and again in 1985. I guess it takes a Miles Davis imprimatur to be taken seriously as a jazz player. Following that, he launched a solo career, releasing more than a dozen albums. Stern was hailed as the Best Jazz Guitarist of 1993 by  Guitar Player Magazine. At the  Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in June 2007, Stern was honored with the Miles Davis Award, which was created to recognize internationally acclaimed jazz artists whose work has contributed significantly to the renewal of the genre. In 2009 Stern was listed as one of the 75 best jazz guitarist of all time. He was presented with Guitar Player magazine’s Certified Legend Award on January 21, 2012. He has 16 solo albums to his credit.

I tend not to find solid body electric guitars visually pleasing. To me one Telecaster electric guitar looks much the same as another. However, Mike plays a signature Yamaha Pacifica – Mike Stern Model. Years ago, because he really liked Telecasters so much he had Yamaha make him one to his specifications. It is one beautiful looking guitar.

This is loud music but with lots of good stuff there to hold one’s interests. Of course at the end of the performance the question remains. Is it Rock or is it Jazz?  ….. Enjoy

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