Roberto Occhipinti, A Bend in the River (Alma Records Modica Music): The Toronto bassist, a stalwart in Jane Bunnett’s band, emailed me in September and asked whether I’d like to write the liner notes for his new CD. Of course I would (I’m a fan) but there was an election on, and time got away from us, and so he just put the album out. What I’d have written is that Occhipinti continues to stand so far out from the Toronto pack that he is in his own category. Not because there aren’t jazz musicians as fine as him, of course there are, but because I know of none who put so much care and ambition into every record they make. Here Occhipinti uses a lush but smartly-deployed string orchestra to back a band of Cubans (David Virelles on piano, Dafnis Prieto on drums, and Luis Deniz, who is new to me but very strong on alto sax) on a set of tunes with very few references to Cuban music. Instead there’s confident, tuneful straight-ahead jazz, thoroughly conceived and impeccably organized without losing any of its spontaneity.
The elder brother of Michael and a cousin of guitarist David, Roberto Occhipinti has enjoyed a productive career primarily as bassist, secondarily as producer. Initially mentored by Joel Quarrington and David Young, he spent decades as an orchestral player and sideman before releasing his first album as leader at the turn of the century. Occhipinti’s fourth release, A Bend in the River (Alma records ACD11182), showcases his refined skills as player, producer, arranger and composer. the core personnel consists of pianist David Virelles, drummer Dafnis Prieto, Occhipinti on bass and Luis Deniz on alto saxophone. Collectively the group outlines each composition’s shape, but the canvas is splashed with many other colours, including guest appearances by flautist Les Allt, bass clarinetist John Johnson, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and a full string orchestra on three of the seven cuts. The title track is a memorable standout for its logically flowing melody, sweeping harmonic movement and a rhythmically inventive saxophone solo by Deniz. Occhipinti’s string arrangements, especially those featuring the Globalis String Orchestra, create a lush lyricism that lingers long after the disc plays out.
Roberto Occhipinti skimmed the cream of jazz and chamber players in Canada and poured it into this album he produced. Occhipinti wrote five tunes recorded here, John Coltrane wrote one, and the closing cut is by Luis Deniz, the band’s alto player. The title track personnel are the band, backed by the Chamber Sextet and the String Orchestra. Maybe A Bend in the River is Occhipinti going further into the jazz-classical crossover ensemble mode he’s explored on earlier records.
Bend In The River is originally the title of a novel by V. S, Naipaul that explores success in terms of connecting with one’s roots. Accordingly, there is a lot of Occhipinti’s varied background in this album. There are references to Bartok and Brecker, Charlie Haden and Cuban Cha Cha, Kenny Garrett, Goodfellas — the movie — and the Gryphon Trio.
“Umbria” opens with a classical canon played by a string quartet for under a minute; then Occhipinti’s bass bounces it into contemporary jazz mode. Luis Deniz’s sax swings out a melody that is echoed by the jazz band, Dafnis Prieto’s drums supplying punctuation that the orchestral strings soften. The ever-excellent pianist David Virelles develops the theme with pearly variations. Deniz talks back, gets intense, recapitulates the melody against a heavily arranged background laced with instrumental crosstalk until the whole thing comes to an end sounding like a slightly Latin sonata.
“A Bend In The River” opens with a gush of strings that sounds synthed and brings to mind the chromatic blush of an African sunset. The notes of Occhipiniti’s bass solo melody bounce like a row of sinewy Masai warriors. He sets a beat that moves to the back when Deniz’s sax bleats out an ostinato theme, the strings talk it back, and Tony Allen does some nice work on drums. The whole arrangement is rich, but the strings and the sax doing a lot of lush repeats begin to sound a bit round.
Coltrane’s “Naima” opens with a reflective bass solo over strings. I never tire of hearing Occhipinti’s solos; the tone and timbre are unique and personal. He speaks. The string orchestra not so much. The sax is romantic and blue like a 40’s movie about night-time in New York. With the added strings, you get that heavy, sweet ‘movie’ feeling a lot on this album.
The rest of the way through it, I enjoyed listening for excellence in the bass, Virelles’ piano, and the rolling bones of drummer Dafnis Prieto.
A Bend in the River – It goes under-reported locally but Toronto-based Roberto Occhipinti is a multi-talented bassist/composer/producer with a serious international reputation. That is confirmed by the presence here of such players as Afrobeat drumming legend Tony Allen (befriended by Occhipinti when both were working on Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz and Mali Music project) and the New York-based alto saxophonist Luis Deniz and drummer Dafnis Prieto, as well as the Globalis Orchestra (recorded in Moscow). Occhipinti is equally at home in the classical and jazz worlds, and he fuses disparate elements in a refreshing and intelligent fashion on his original compositions here. That is evident from the opening number, “Umbria,” in which a string quartet intro segues seamlessly into the melodic jazz of the composer’s core quartet. Solo bass and strings merge sweetly on his version of classic Coltrane ballad “Naima,” while the closing Latin-rooted track, “Marta,” was written by Deniz. Occhipinti, a key player in Toronto’s Latin/Cuban music scene, and local comrade pianist David Virelles is also featured effectively here. Superb stuff.
A dark vision of the world and this time is, perhaps, the most accurate one today. So when an account of artists’ contributions to raising the world’s level of awareness is written, bassist Roberto Occhipinti’s fine A Bend in the River will rank as one with the clearest reflection of that vision. Of course none of this means that the record is not infinitely enjoyable. It is played in a continuously evolving idiom and, indeed, reveals something fascinatingly new with every listen.
Occhipinti is a composer of exceptional brilliance. He has a flair for narrative and a rare genius for infusing his musical stories with an almost Conradian gift of dynamic tension. As a gifted and thoughtful musician whose music inhabits a larger canvas in a painterly manner, he also has an absolute mastery of tonal color. His bass playing leans heavily into the ocean of European ideas—like bassists such as Javier Colina—and swings with erudite masculinity. These attractive characteristics are displayed on A Bend in the River.
The record, in seven tracks, presents a dramatic sonic feast for the senses. It opens with canonic strings layered con arco to reveal “Umbria,” a composition that is a tantalizing musical adventure. It’s as if the music undulates through il cuor verde d’Italia, sweeping with circular ferocity in its utterly contemporary jazz idiom. The seven-piece ensemble—four strings, reeds, woodwinds and brass—is a perfect foil for the core quartet of Luis Deniz, whose brilliant alto saxophone lights up every work on the record, the ever-insightful David Virelles on piano and the magnificent Dafnis Prieto on drums.
But it is “A Bend in the River” that defines the vision of the record. A dark, iconic piece, it recalls two literary predecessors that explore, literally, the heart of darkness at the confluence of the ancient and the modern. The river motif is superbly described by the ebb and flow of the harmonics, driven by the quartet and elevated by the Globalis Orchestra’s moving tonal colors. The rhythmic motif, especially in the rumbling tympani sequences by drummer Tony Allen, is deeply African. This is the moving centerpiece of the record. The brisk “That’s That,” puckish “Chamacos” and severe yet gorgeous “Garotte” all enrich the CD. Coltrane’s “Naima” stands out and is the only track where the bassist asserts his virtuosity. This version transposes ‘Trane’s saxophone to the bass in the same fashion as Mingus did on “In a Sentimental Mood,” which opened his tribute to Ellington at the legendary Monterey performance of 1964.
Deniz’s “Marta,” a tender tribute to his mother, brings the record to a close and is a kind of bookend for “Naima.” Here, too, Deniz acquits himself with grace and immense virtuosity. His is the solo voice of the record and shapes much of the narrative of this memorable project.