Sunday isn’t officially “Occhipinti Day” at the 35th annual Toronto Jazz Festival, but it should be.
The Toronto brothers own the late afternoon slots of the TD Main Stage: standup bassist Roberto Occhipinti performs with pianist Adrean Farrugia and drummer Larnell Lewis to showcase his latest project, “The Next Step,” before joining guitarist Michael Occhipinti and Montreal chanteuse Elizabeth Shepherd for ES:MO, the Juno-nominated duo promoting their recent album, “The Weight of Hope.”
The Occhipinti siblings have been fixtures on the local jazz scene for decades, entertaining live audiences and recording in different configurations. Roberto, 67, owns, operates and serves as a record producer for Modica Music, and he performs with the ensemble Soul Stew, the 106 Collective Quartet, pianist Hilario Durán, and did a long spell as part of Memo Acevedo’s Banda Brava.
Meanwhile, Michael, 55, books shows for Hugh’s Room Live and teaches jazz at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Humber College, and guitar and pop at Centennial College. He recently won a Juno Award for his participation in world jazz group Avataar. He’s part of the 16-piece big band Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra (with Paul Neufeld), funk band Grooveyard, Turkish ambient band Minor Empire and, with his brother, the Triodes and the Sicilian Project.
His solo records have provided jazz renditions of pop music, including “Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon” and “Creation Dream: The Songs Of Bruce Cockburn.”
Both brothers have collaborated with Ottawa-born singer and songwriter Cockburn.
“I’ve known Bruce since he played high schools,” Roberto said as he and Michael sat down at a picnic table on a recent sunny day at the Shops at Don Mills. “He was 24 and I was the opening act for him. I worked with his producer at the time a lot, a guy named Jon Goldsmith.”
The brothers grew up in a musical household with the radio on constantly, where they were influenced by their brother Peter, now a retired guitar player, and cousin David, also an accomplished guitarist.
But Michael didn’t start out on the guitar. His first love was the clarinet.
The turning point?
“I got him a job at (former jazz club) George’s Spaghetti House as a busboy,” said Robert. “He got to listen to Ed Bickert and Moe Koffman.”
“That made me a very eclectic musician,” Michael said. “I also went the punk and new wave route. By the time I was a teenager, I was the only child at home. We took over the basement and we got to play a lot. My cousin David and I — we did go to Victoria Park high school together — so we started to play some jazz standards at lunch time.”
But Michael didn’t realize he would make music his living until he attended university.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to study music,” he said. “I went to York (University), met my friend Paul Neufeld and we started the big band. For me, that was really important because nobody else in my family had a big band … I could do something that was mine.
“I think it took me until my 30s to figure out how to play guitar, but the big band was good for my writing.”
Roberto’s story is different: falling in love with the acoustic bass at an early age, one of his specialties became Cuban jazz. He first learned salsa after a stint in the Winnipeg Symphony, but it was much later that he said he had an epiphany.
“Before I went to Winnipeg, I got into the Juilliard School of Music and went to New York for a week, staying with my friends,” he said. “I ended up not going to Juilliard because I couldn’t afford it — I took the Winnipeg Symphony job instead — but while I was there I stayed in Spanish Harlem during the years of the Fania All-Stars, so I’d hear the salsa music of Rubén Blades, Héctor Lavoe: the heyday of salsa in New York.
“I recorded everything on cassette and listened to them when I was in Winnipeg. When I came back, my friend’s brother was playing in a salsa band and they always needed bass players.
“After a while, I realized I had an affinity for salsa, so I began playing with Memo Acevedo. But the crucial moment occurred when I went to Cuba with my friends Hilario Durán and Jane Bunnett — I realized that I didn’t know anything and I learned a lot.
“Sometimes jazz can be too intellectual for people, but when there’s a groove underneath it you can play anything on top.”
Roberto and Michael have worked together sporadically. For “The Sicilian Jazz Project,” Roberto handed Michael a CD of Italian music recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.
“It was interesting because it was music recorded by Alan Lomax in Modica (Italy) — which is where our father grew up — and in the same year he emigrated. That was music our dad would have heard,” Roberto said. “So I gave it to Michael and he went to town with it.”
The album was nominated for a Juno in 2009, along with Roberto’s album “A Bend in the River.”
“We both lost,” Michael said.
For his recent project “The Next Step,” Roberto decided to take advantage of the Modica Music studio sitting empty during the pandemic.
“I sold the building and the studio was sitting there doing nothing, so I thought I’d move in some gear and just start recording stuff,” he explained. “It worked out great during COVID because we could do physical distancing. We did (guitarist) Lorne Lofsky’s records. I had some friends call and wonder if they could come down, because people wanted to play. So I did like 10 different trios.
“I basically have 10 albums in the can. With jazz records, it’s not like that’s a big deal. The secret is get a bunch of guys who know how to play, stick a microphone in front of them, record it and go home.”
While “The Next Step” took hours to record, ES:MO’s “The Weight of Hope” — which also features Roberto on acoustic bass — took three years.
“We started it at the Banff Centre for the Arts because we happened to be on tour,” said Michael. “The idea was for it to be just Elizabeth and I but, thanks to the pandemic, we had a chance to listen to it all again and think, ‘Well, it would be nice to add bass or drums to this tune … and this one …’
“She lives in Quebec, so there were times (due to provincial border shutdowns) I couldn’t go visit her to record or play together. The upside was we got to take our time with it, and we did some at my brother’s studio and also with David Trevor-Smith, our engineer, at his place, so it became a much more arranged record.”
Despite issuing many of these projects — including ES:MO’s “The Weight of Hope” — on his Modica Music label, Roberto Occhipinti is resigned to the fact that he won’t sell too many copies, in part due to the fact that streaming is so popular.
“Basically all records now are vanity projects,” he said. “Unfortunately, after a while, my vanity caught up with my chequebook.”
But both Michael and Roberto said they are in the business for love and curiosity.
“Part of doing all these things is curiosity, what’s interesting to you,” said Roberto. “I don’t play any music with the idea that I might be successful at it or that it could give me financial success. You just go down the rat hole for something you really like.
“People say, ‘You play music like a Cuban’ and I say, ‘No, I play this music with my accent.’ I can only speak my language, my way. And everything I do is based on the fact that I’m a jazz musician.”
Michael echoed the sentiment.
“That’s something that makes us feel young, retaining that curiosity, that restlessness to do other projects. If you’re doing music three decades later, you’re successful.”
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