Roberto Occhipinti

Roberto Occhipinti represents diversity at its best. As a musician, composer, and record producer, he has won numerous awards. The Toronto-born bassist has played in many different types of music throughout his life, including jazz ensembles, Latin groups and rhythm & blues outfits as well as rock bands. He has written for television and radio, performed in theatres and operas, and recorded more sessions than he can recall. It would be an understatement to call this hardworking musician versatile. Occhipinti admits that he has always held catholic views about his musical endeavors. I don’t wait to hear the phone ring. I prefer to make a phone call rather than wait for the phone to ring. “I get involved in projects because I am interested in doing many different things and you never really know what they will lead to,” Occhipinti says. His versatility is a direct result of his instrument. He says that the bass is what enables him to do everything. It puts you at the center of every situation, unlike other instruments. There are many opportunities for me to play double bass and electric basses. For example, a guitarist can’t play in the symphony orchestra. “I’m attracted by the social nature music and the bass instrument is the perfect instrument for that.” Occhipinti started straddling classical and jazz music from a young age. Joel Quarrington, a classical bassist, and Dave Young, his first mentors, were a representation of that musical duality. Quarrington was a classical bassist, with whom he grew in Don Mills, Toronto. Young played bass with both jazz and orchestra musicians like Oscar Peterson and Moe Koffman. Occhipinti recalls that Dave was also working in studios. “Basically, all the things I wanted to be doing,” he said. Occhipinti fell in love with Latin music after stints with the Winnipeg Symphony and Hamilton Philharmonic. Jane Bunnett, a saxophonist, approached Occhipinti to replace her bass player during a tour after she had played with Memo Acevedo’s Banda Brava. Occhipinti ended up playing on three Bunnett albums, including the Juno Award-winning Ritmo and Soul and Grammy-nominated Alma de Santiago. He met Hilario Duran, a Cuban-Canadian pianist, and helped to produce three Duran albums, including the Juno-winning New Danzon. Occhipinti was also a long-standing member of Arraymusic and principal bassist for the Esprit Orchestra. He also wrote music for CBC radio dramas. His score for George Shrinks, an animated children’s show, earned him a SOCAN composer award. Occhipinti’s best recordings are those he has made himself. They have merged his classical roots with his deep appreciation of jazz and world music. From his first album to his last year’s A Bend in the River he has created a unique synthesis of big-band horns, symphonic strings and rhythm sections. He also incorporates original compositions, as well as his interpretations of works from composers such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix, Giacomo Puccini and Brazil’s Djavan. Occhipinti says that jazz is the original form of world music. It’s an open platform, it can be anything you want.
Occhipinti’s talents and adventurous tastes have taken Occhipinti as far as West Africa. He appeared with Damon Albarn’s Mali Music project. (He had previously toured with Albarn’s experimental hip-hop group Gorillaz). He has been an electric bass player with Soul Stew since 1990. This six-piece funk/r&b band includes some of Toronto’s best studio musicians. Another of his ventures is deeply rooted in his family. Occhipinti, a Sicilian-born man, introduced his brother Michael, his guitarist, to field recordings made in Sicily by Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist. The Sicilian Jazz Project was the result. It featured a CD that reinterprets traditional folk music, with arrangements by Michael and production from Roberto. Roberto and his brother, Roberto, recently returned from a tour in Sicily with his own quartet of jazz musicians. They were there to collect an award from Modica, Sicily’s local government. Roberto says it was bittersweet because his parents have passed away and they couldn’t see Michael and me working on this. But it was a great experience. Next up for Roberto is new albums that he produced for Duran, Cuban drummer Dafnis Precieto, and Quarrington who is now one of the most respected classical bassists in the world. Occhipinti owes his steady work in production to his instrument. He says that bass players are good producers because they can see the bigger picture and have a better understanding of the music they play. He says that ultimately, it all boils down to playing the bass.

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