Modica MusicRoberto Occhipinti's 'The Next Step' and Luis Deniz's 'El Tinajon'Modica Music

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The Next Step
Release date: March 4, 2022
Label: Modica Music

Roberto Occhipinti presents his latest record, The Next Step. Joining the bassist to explore a tightly synthesized collection of influences from his diverse career are two musicians with roots in the Toronto music scene – pianist Adrean Farrugia and two-time GRAMMY winning drummer Larnell Lewis.

Bassist Occhipinti is an established presence on both the Canadian and International jazz scenes. A five-time Juno Award recipient, Occhipinti is in demand across an astounding range of contexts. The latter part of his career has seen Occhipinti recording with a number of Cuban musicians, on projects with Hilario Duran and Jane Bunnet in particular, but there are few formats Occhipinti hasn’t been involved in, from playing bass in Canada’s top-rate orchestras, to cutting-edge contemporary music, to Latin American performances, and work with top musicians from Africa and Asia. Performing credits span from John Cage and Terry Riley to Stevie Wonder, Tony Allen and Damon Albarn.

The Next Step, Occhipinti’s sixth release as leader, looks to synthesize his diverse collection of musical interests via a classic jazz format. During the pandemic, Occhipinti was fortunate to keep recording (he owns a recording studio, and heads up Modica Music). That precious time was used to consolidate the projects he was involved in, and move into a new creative space of his own – the piano trio: “I decided I would concentrate my own efforts on doing a piano trio project, one my favorite musical combinations.” This is Occhipinti’s first trio project as leader, taking inspiration from a host of the jazz greats. “It’s always been a favorite form of mine, from the time I started playing bass after hearing Ray Brown in the Oscar Peterson Trio, then moving on to the classic Bill Evans trio with Scott LoFaro, and finally in my work with the Hilario Duran Trio.”

It’s an important contribution to the world of bass-led trios, to which Occhipinti adds his own individual colorings. “My other recording projects were for larger ensembles with winds and strings. For The Next Step, I would be the string section, using techniques I learned in my career playing classical and contemporary music.” The result is a thoughtful, thorough synthesis of elements from a diverse and successful career.

The album opens with title track “The Next Step”, written as a memorial to recently departed friends, which introduces Occhipinti’s core sound – expressive bow-work and lightly textured string overdubs. Adrean Farrugia balances the roles of supportive accompanist and thoughtful soloist with ease, and the track breaks out into a loose jazz waltz, packed full of misty extended harmonies.

Every year on August 1st, Occhipinti celebrates “Emancipation Day” in Owen Sound, Ontario at the terminus of the Underground Railroad. Opening with Lewis’s expectant drums, the track has a Tony Allen-esque Afrobeat flavour, another chance to hear the twisting, turning piano trickery of Farrugia. “The Peacocks” is a ballad by Jimmy Rowles, to which Occhipinti adds atmospheric overdubs to his tenderly expressive solo work.

Though the record was partly an opportunity for Occhipinti’s solo delivery to shine, there is equal space for pianist Adrean Farrugia too. Occhipinti wrote Il Muro (The Wall) for him: “In a challenging year, he was always enthusiastic about playing, always wanting to move forward.” There are hints of Mulgrew Miller in the inlaid counterpoint and flowing piano; Lewis too throws himself into his solos in what becomes a sequence of open-hearted contributions.

“O Cessate Di Piagarmi” sees Occhipinti reach for another of his multitude of influences. The piece was originally written by Alessandro Scarlatti in 1640, and takes shape in a cool ballad featuring singer Ilaria Corciani’s voice, inventively arranged and reharmonized by Occhipinti.

Where O Cessate began as a film commission, “Three Man Crew” responded to a different brief – Occhipinti was challenged by collaborator Manuel Valera to write a piece in 30 minutes, and threes run through the track – triple time, three bar phrases, and performed, in its refined version, by the trio. It lilts along, Lewis and Farrugia sensitively accompanying Occhipinti’s dynamic touches, before settling on a groove that Lewis tries his level best to break out of.

“Opus Pocus” is Occhipinti’s hat-tip to Jaco Pastorious (“a major influence on my musical aesthetic, not only for the bass playing but also his composing and breadth of musical interests.”) It creeps along with a slinky beat, as a twisting folk melody works its way round the ensemble, moving into a grooving, blues-rock track closer to a Weather Report or Herbie cut. “Steveland is another dedication – to Stevie Wonder, whom Occhipinti got to work with on his legendary Songs in the Key of Life tour. A tender Stevie-esque melody emerges after a quieter and freer opening, and there are clutches of Wonder-ish harmonic language scattered throughout.

Another foundational piano trio Occhipinti managed to see in the flesh was that of the great McCoy Tyner. “A Tynerish Swing”, the closing track, is a joyous tribute to the Real McCoy, a jaunty end to an album that covers a lot of ground and sees a new trio in sparkling form.

El Tinajón
Release date: May 27, 2022
Label: Modica Music

GRAMMY-nominated and Juno Award-winning saxophonist, composer and educator Luis Deniz presents El Tinajón. On this tremendously varied debut statement, the Cuban-born bandleader coalesces the rich cultural influences from his upbringing in Camaguey and Florida with his later life move to Canada.

Deniz has maintained an impressive career as a sideman and saxophonist for decades, having performed and recorded among the likes of Barry HarrisHoward JohnsonRandy Brecker, Ray Vega, Donald Harrison and Ingrid Jensen to name a few. He has hosted workshops and performances all over the world, fostering a sound that evidently resonates across borders. Deniz’s aptitude for melding traditions is front and center on El Tinajón, a statement that carries listeners through a wide range of sounds from hard bop to Afro-Cuban. 

Over the course of his artistry, Deniz has captured international awards and recognition. In 2003, he took first place at JOJAZZ, an international jazz competition in Havana. In 2006, he won the Grand Prix de Jazz General Motors at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Today, Deniz is a faculty member at Toronto’s prestigious Humber College, and privately instructs large ensembles and individual students.

Wistful, emotionally complex and fashioned with powerful improvisation, El Tinajón, is a profound kickoff for the bandleader as he pays tribute to his beginnings. Central to the recording is the sensation of longing and its relevance to Deniz’s international identity—composed through this recollective lens, Deniz’s compositions parse through his experience emigrating to the West from Cuba.

Deniz reflects: “El Tinajón is the name of a clay pot that was brought to Cuba by the Spanish, in the early 1500s. It was originally used to collect rainwater in the Spanish-style open patios. Not too long after that, the Tinajón became the trademark of the province of Camaguey, an insignia of sorts.” As an immigrant from Cuba, based in Toronto, Canada, the saxophonist felt that this was the most honest introduction he could give of himself and his self-described humble beginnings. The experiences of growing up in Florida, Camaguey, combined with the emotions that come with emigrating, and a sense of longing were the fuel behind this project. 

With an all-encompassing, velvety tone on saxophone, Deniz’s penchant for imaginative improvisation sits at the core of this engrossing project. “I really wanted to create music that was emotionally complex, rather than technically. I tried my best to channel all of the unique cultural and musical experiences that I had growing up and have that be the guiding light for the creation of the compositions,” he shares. 

The album opens with the bold saxophone/percussion duet “Reflexiones”, a melodic meditation over the driving Afro-Cuban rhythm, Abakuá. Drummer Amhed Mitchel and percussionist Jorge Luis Torres harness a mesmerizing atmosphere with their nuanced rhythmic crisscrossing, played here in the absence of harmonic instruments to augment the fine details of traditional percussive notes.

Playing a heavy-handed series of figures on “La Ceiba de Mayuya”, the band is based over a pedal while the percussion and drums juxtapose a tripleted swing over traditional Afro-Cuban bata drumming. After an eloquent bass solo by Roberto Occhipinti, Deniz and pianist Rafael Zaldivar launch into an animated and intensifying exchange.

“This track is a tribute to a neighborhood in my town of the same name. That town is a real beacon of Afro-Cuban musical and religious practices. This would have been the place where I first experienced a powerful Yoruba religious ceremony and saw for the first time Bata drums being played. Every time I thought of this place and the ceremonies I participated in, John Coltrane came to mind,” Deniz comments.

Dedicated to the bandleader’s wife, “Dutch Flower” finds the group in a straight pop-like power ballad, playing lush harmonies and an emotive melody over a backbeat. Zaldivar’s spare but effective use of synths expands the sonic texture, reminiscent of far-stretching, bloomed flower pedals. 

Each an outstanding player in their own right, the shining ensemble members coming together as a group is a highlight for Deniz: “I’m a firm believer in the power of a “band” sound, as I grew up being heavily influenced by groups like Irakere, Miles Davis Quintet, Branford Marsalis Quartet, among others. My bandmates are of the same mentality and we work towards making music and art together. They’re not there to help me validate any sort of greatness on my part, we are only as good as the band is!” 

Covering a broad range of sound but keeping with a common thread, El Tinajón presents a masterful collection of music wrought with Afro-Cuban folkloric influence and accentuated by Deniz’s high-powered musicality.  “As a composer, I really just let myself write what I hear. I’m not preoccupied with compositions sounding hard, difficult, or anything of the sort. To me, music is about people, and songs should reflect emotions. That was the main goal I wanted to achieve here,” he reflects. Placing a premium on soul over complexity with a commitment to true self-representation, Luis Deniz shows us at once where he is from and where he will go on this notable debut.