Alma Records has another sure-fire hit on its hands with the release of Roberto Occhipinti’s The Cusp. Utilizing some of Toronto’s finest musicians, the performers inspire each other to new heights as they work their way through the nine charts whose “glue” is Occhipinti’s savvy arrangements. For the most part, he has the very good sense of knowing when to give his charges full rein and when to batten down the musical hatches, delivering a result that’s so tight it squeaks.
The only weak link is the opener. “David’s Onda,” despite a valiant trumpet solo from Kevin Turcotte and Hilario Duran’s superb support, comes across too pastel. For the only time in the set, the ensembles are strangely vertical in the rhythm department. Still, Dafnis Prieto’s late-inning drum solo has much to admire.
“Ana Maria,” whose wonderful melody pays homage to “The Girl From Ipanema,” is beautifully balanced and warmly felt. Phil Dwyer’s soprano sax solo emerges convincingly then gradually becomes more energetic (toying with frantic), adding spectacular contrast.
Dwyer goes on to mine some great ideas out of “Voodoo Chile;” his “no fear” approach to the stratospheric Wailing Wall is a pleasure. The ensemble is more together than ever and the muted hues—particularly the contributions from John Johnson’s bass clarinet—would most certainly be approved by Jimi Hendrix.
The brain trust behind Toronto’s sputtering attempts at marketing the city should consider using “T.Dot” as their musical brand. This sassy, multicultural, truly sensational soundscape (where the saxophone feasts on its thematic prey) demonstrates the city’s cosmopolitan and artistic strengths far better than any poster or slogan could! The possibilities are “unlimited ….”
Occhipinti’s solo opening of “Tosca” is a truly impassioned rendering of the famous aria, following which arranger Occhipinti carefully entrusts the lead to Turcotte, but bereft of the usual tenor affectation, which is directly proportional to the ego of many shameless singers. The tune is wrapped with colour and chords that would first surprise, then delight Puccini as would the flute and bass clarinet frame that supports the languished and edgy improvisations.
“Prieto Azul” explodes into the ear with zest and drive, aided considerably by the addition of Chendy Leon’s percussive genius. Alastair Kay’s trombone solo takes fire immediately and the ride along to the double bar—fueled by crisp and creative collaboration—if refined and sold at the pump could solve the current energy crisis single-handedly.
The last three compositions comprise a Mali-inspired suite. Happy to report that “Septima” (“the exercise was to have a simple melody over some odd-metre rhythms and chromatic harmony”) is a triumph and demonstration to others that the key to success is to relax through the pulse—then the beats will take care of themselves. In “The Cusp” the true horn (James MacDonald) of the horns is first-rate, giving the cool blend a special mix, effectively complemented by both Occhipintis (bass and guitar).
Predating the first two movements, “Dogon” is a heady celebration where—if only for the duration of the chart—all worries disappear. Sitting in on violin, Hugh Marsh’s contribution is in turn nimble, vibrant and “bowably” intriguing. Now on piano, Dwyer is constantly interesting, if a tad heavy handed.
With our world seemingly always on the cusp, here’s an album that enthusiastically reminds us why we go on. JWR