Kudos to Brock University’s Department of Music for bringing Canada’s pre-eminent contemporary big jazz band to deliver two sets from the creative talents of co-leaders Michael Occhipinti (guitar) and Paul Neufeld (piano). NOJO’s very excellent musicians lifted the notes from their pages with dedication, skill and poise before an audience of students and enthusiasts that either relished every bar or (reminiscent of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony) discreetly vacated their posts when their participation in the proceedings seemed done.
In sum, the first half had a slight edge over the post-intermission offerings. Dan Bone’s throaty clarinet glued the opener (“Three Forks”) together as the 16-member band settled into the realities of the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre’s arid reverb and brittle grand piano. But from that point forward the band started to gel, delivering their tunes and improvisations with compelling style.
Sean O’Connor’s contributions—particularly on baritone sax in “Days Like Grass”—were first-rate, and John Johnson’s exceptional artistry and light-caramel tone effortlessly flowing from his “real” soprano sax in “Broad Daylight” were welcome highlights in the early going.
And, as he would all night, drummer Barry Romberg kept this lively crew moving steadily forward, although I found myself tiring of his near constant contact with the splash cymbal.
The brass were in fine form: trombonist Don Laws and his electrifying, frantic solos proved to be the perfect foil to William Carn’s more subdued and conservative interventions, but the unsung (‘til the curtain was about to fall) steadiness and tone colourings of tuba-extraordinaire, Doug Burrell, deserve special accolades, for without a solid bottom the soloists’ horns can never find the freedom to fly.
And of the three stellar trumpets, John MacLeod (no matter what shape of tubing) was consistently dazzling in all his interjections but, memorably in the closer, “Short Order.” And while the section didn’t spend hours near the sun, their in-tune screech bursts had me looking backstage for Maynard Ferguson.
Extra-musical sounds (reed mouthpiece buffet in “Forensic Evidence,” a literal brass air chart to provide “Exhaust” with a perfect opening soundscape), saucy parody complete with an instrumental school-yard brawl (“The First Day of School”) and less successful “chorus” work in “Zawashorius” added welcome variety to the aural palette.
Throughout, there was a sense of ensemble and real teamwork that belied the inevitable personnel variations that any band this size faces at nearly every gig. All the more reason to single out stand-up bassist, Duncan Hopkins (who briefly sported a Niagara postal code) for his sympathetic leadership, support and (“Broad Daylight”) exceptional coupling of technique and soul that had his horn colleagues listening with respectful envy.
But not everything excelled. “Shadowed,” especially included because it doesn’t “work in bars,” wandered so much that it never found its way and I’d rather hear one more chart than the patter-without-purpose offered by Occhipinti as an intro to the otherwise interesting “The Great Farini.” Local “colour” has a place: in books.
Both leaders are accomplished instrumentalists (Neufeld even proffered a not-bad pirouette), but the self-indulgence of Occhipinti’s chatter managed to seep into some of the scores. While I entirely understand the need for “original” material (I’m a SOCAN member since 1977), I believe that this fantastic array of talent will move to the next level of excellence and popularity when its leaders admit repertoire not their own in hopes of finding a wider public that will cheer them far beyond their Juno Awards. JWR