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Along with the five albums he had previously released under his leadership, bassist Roberto Occhipinti has spent the past five decades playing in jazz ensembles, classical orchestras, Afro-Cuban jazz outfits led by Hilario Durán and Jane Bunnett, and in the touring bands of Stevie Wonder and Britpop pioneer Damon Albarn among others. But the one project that had eluded the five-time Juno Award-winner was leading a classic jazz piano trio. He’s checked that box with his latest release, The Next Step (Modica Music).The opportunity came about during the summer of 2021, as live gigs in Toronto remained shut down amid Canada’s strict pandemic restrictions. Fortunately for Occhipinti, he owns his own studio; in fact, during our conversation, he was in the process of moving — the building was soon to be demolished to make room for new condo development. Among the musicians who spent time there, desperate for any opportunity to play, were Larnell Lewis, who’s made a name for himself as the drummer for the eclectic ensemble Snarky Puppy, and Juno Award-nominated pianist Adrean Farrugia. Occhipinti seized the moment. The resultant trio recording synthesizes the bassist’s diverse musical history into a set of nine graceful, luminous tracks.Most notably, there’s an orchestral quality in his approach to the trio. It’s in everything from the arco bass lines that open the title track to the expansive harmonies and rich melodies that animate his compositions. The best example may be in his wondrous solo version of Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks.” While he overdubbed his bass parts, Occhipinti didn’t employ any pedal effects — he used the natural harmonics of his bowed bass lines to conjure a dreamlike fantasia.“I have a classical music background, so I’ve always been enamored with writing for strings because I’m a string player,” Occhipinti says during a video call from his studio. “I’ve played a lot of contemporary music too, and I learned a lot of techniques. So, I thought, I’m going to be the string orchestra this time. Sometimes we forget that music is more than just harmony, melody and rhythm, but it’s also timbre and the sounds we go for.” Laughingly he adds, “I use timbre to make up for my lack of rhythm, melody and harmony.” Warm, gregarious and quick with self-deprecating humor, Occhipinti also has deeply philosophical ideas about music, particularly the fact that jazz by nature can accommodate all kinds of styles, idioms and traditions. “For me, the key thing to everything that I do is informed by being a jazz musician, because jazz is like open-source coding,” he says. “What makes a jazz musician so versatile is the structure of learning to play jazz in the first place, because you have technical facility, rhythmic facility, harmonic facility. Other musics don’t require that; they require something else. I like to think of all these things that I do as performance algorithms. There’s an algorithm to playing Mozart, there’s an algorithm to playing the blues. [Jazz is] an open system.”Language is another analogy that Occhipinti uses. While he’s played a lot of Cuban music, for example, Occhipinti notes that he plays it “with my accent.” Occhipinti, who first fell in love with the bass as at age 13 while listening to the Oscar Peterson Trio’s Night Train, turned 67 in March. His long and varied musical journey — alluded to on Next Step tracks from Scarlatti’s “O Cessate di Piagarmi” to Jaco Pastorius’ “Opus Pocus” to his own “Steveland,” which salutes Stevie Wonder — in a sense, returned him to his native tongue.“I heard about three notes of Ray Brown and said, that’s it,” he says. “I started off wanting to play in a trio, I’ve gone through these other things, and I’m basically playing trio music again, which is enjoyable. It’s a challenge, but it’s enjoyable.” - John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.