True North Records releases The Universe of John Lennon July 17, a project led by Canadian jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti with his band, Shine On (Elizabeth Shepherd, Dominic Mancuso, Yvette Tollar, Denzal Sinclaire, Laila Biali, Roberto Occhipinti, Mark Kelso, Kevin Turcotte, Robi Botos, Debashis Sinha and Gianluca Occhipinti).
The Universe began as a holiday concert – well, an alternative to one, actually – in late 2010, when the Markham Jazz Festival asked Occhipinti (as its new artistic director) to organize an evening of Christmas jazz. But the guitarist/composer responded with something else entirely: a tribute to one of his childhood heroes, John Lennon, to mark the 30th anniversary of his untimely death.
The concert sold out, the musicians had a great time, and it didn’t take very much rubber soul twisting to get everyone back together this year for a recording and a summer concert tour. Recently flying back across the universe (from YVR to YTO), Occhipinti took a moment out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his latest CD.
Q: Lennon wrote a lot of great songs. How did you choose what you wanted to record?
A: I did pick songs for specific reasons, either because I thought I could present them in a creative way ("Working Class Hero," for example) or because there was something cool I wanted to refer to (the backwards guitar on "I'm Only Sleeping" was a Beatles innovation and I use a lot of backwards guitar or the tape loops on "Tomorrow Never Knows"). Only when the record was done did I realize that we skipped over some of the pop "baby love" songs, which are great, of course, but I'm not sure I was plotting the program from that angle.
Q: You mention in your notes there being no shortage of Beatles tributes. Are there any in particular that had an influence on you?
A: Hmmm. I honestly can't say there are too many that blew me away, but I've liked a few for different reasons. Booker T. & The MG's did their own version of Abbey Road (Mclemore Avenue) that is just kind of fun, if occasionally goofy, and I suppose hearing a couple of women do Beatles songs like Fiona Apple or Sarah McLachlan was helpful because I realized that male voices make it harder to escape the is-he-trying-to-sound-like-John-Lennon. Rufus Wainwright, of course, has such a distinct voice that his "Across the Universe" escapes the Lennon comparison even though the arrangement is similar and I suppose that's why I chose some of the singers on the record – I figured they'd sound like themselves.
Q: Lennon has been quoted as saying "jazz is just a lot of old blokes drinking beer at the bar, smoking pipes and not listening to the music." Do you find any truth in that idea?
A: Well, Lennon and I have been at some of the same jazz clubs I guess [laughs] ... I've certainly played a few smoky places over the years where people were more interested in being at the club than listening to the music. However, I think that experience crosses genres, and it's not really about the music.
I don't put too much stock in those kinds of remarks – Lennon was pretty acidic at times, although that's a pretty tame remark compared to how he described some of McCartney's work in later years!
Q: You say you deeply wish Lennon was still around to hear you play his music. Why is that important to you?
A: Well, I certainly just wish he was around, regardless of my work, because he was taken away too soon and in a horrible way. But sure, he was one of my childhood heroes, so it would be a huge understatement to say that it would be great to know what he thinks of my treatment of his songs.
At the jazz level, I've had the chance to work with people who I admired before I met them, especially the clarinetist Don Byron, who has become a good friend. When Don first agreed to come up and play with my big band NOJO, it was not only exciting in a "hey, this musician whose records I love is going to play my stuff" way, but having him like the music means that someone whose work is at the highest level and whose opinion I value is complimenting me and, of course, that's pretty special.
Michael Occhipinti & Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon is at the Lula Lounge in Toronto Dec. 9, 2012.
John Lennon shot in New York [CBC's As It Happens, Dec. 9, 1980]
Unsafe For Radio: John Lennon, NWA And A History Of Controversial Songs
5 fab Beatles albums without the Beatles
on Jul 17, 2012