9 May 2001 -- When I heard that a CD of instrumental jazz interpretations of Bruce Cockburn songs was being recorded, I was a little wary. I expected either dull note for note versions or total unrecognizability of the songs. When I finally heard the CD, I was happy to hear a successful combination of faithfulness to the originals and experimentation.
Michael Occhipinti's "Creation Dream: The Songs Of Bruce Cockburn" is aptly titled. Through Occhipinti's (pronounced "Ock-ah-pin-tee") interpretations, the songs are re-created, reborn, or "reconstructed", in Occhipinti's words (Bravo's "Arts And Minds" TV profile, Nov. 2000). Yet, as Bruce Cockburn says in the same television profile,
"What's interesting is that somehow the spirit of the music has been kept in there, in the arrangements of the songs, even through all that stretching and turning of things upside down and so on."
It also doesn't hurt that Hugh Marsh and Jonathan Goldsmith, who have played on many Cockburn tours and recordings, are featured on the album (in fact, Goldsmith is the producer) and that Bruce himself makes a guest appearance.
So, just who is this guitarist who has managed to make such a faithful, yet adventurous and new sounding tribute to the works of Bruce Cockburn? Michael Occhipinti is the co-leader of the Toronto-based Neufield-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra (NOJO). In addition to albums with NOJO, Occhipinti has released two acclaimed solo albums, "Surrealist Blues" and "Who Meets Who?" He also has extensive experience outside of jazz, performing in funk, R&B, blues bands, and musical theater. In addition, he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with honors) from York University.
It was his work with NOJO that attracted the attention of Bernie Finkelstein, who signed the group to the record label he founded, True North. True North also happens to be Cockburn's label. This serendipity continued when Finkelstein later saw the Occhipinti Quartet doing a Cockburn tune at a local club. Something clicked and he suggested a whole CD of Cockburn songs.
Luckily, this wasn't an unusual request to make of Occhipinti, as he had been a fan of Cockburn's music as a teenager. Further, the idea fit perfectly into his philosophy of music that almost any song is "fair game." He believes that
"that's what jazz musicians have always done. If you look back at it's recorded history, its always been about taking whatever popular songs were available and doing something with them. Most of the jazz songbook comes from the Broadway show songs." ("Cockburn given a jazz treatment". Mike Ross, Edmonton Sun, November 17, 2000)
He expounds further in the liner notes of the CD:
"Think about it. Miles and Bird performed the pop music of their day, and they knew these songs simply from hearing them and absorbing them as the sound around them. As much as I love the jazz standards songbook, I often have to buy recordings of tunes I've never heard before so I can memorize and perform them, because they aren't part of my own cultural and musical expereince. Nobody has to learn the music they've grown up with, and not surprisingly, performing that music feels somehow more instinctive and satisfying. Ever since rock n' roll, there has been a strong anti pop sentiment amongst many jazz musicians, but there is a lot of music worth exploring that was written in my own lifetime. Paying tribute to the music you grew up with is certainly overdue."
Before setting out to record the album, Occhipinti had to expand on his then-current Cockburn repertoire of two songs (One Of The Best Ones and If I Had A Rocket Launcher). With his Quartet, he spent four months playing Bruce Cockburn songs weekly at The Rex in Toronto before recording at Wellesley Sound for four days in April and May of 2000.
"My one rule was that I didn't want to do this record if Bruce wasn't behind it," he says ("A dream come true: Michael Occhipinti pays musical tribute to hero Cockburn" Kieran Grant, Toronto Sun, September 26, 2000).
He had no need to worry, though, as Cockburn visited the studio a few times and ended up playing acoustic guitar on the new arrangement of Pacing The Cage.
"One of the things I loved about the record is how much imagination went into it- into the treatment of the songs", Bruce says. (Bravo's "Arts and Minds" TV profile, Nov. 2000)
Of course, Cockburn has some jazz in his musical background, having studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in the mid-1960's. Even before that, in high school, he was trying to compose intrumental jazz songs. He says:
"I wrote a rather naive jazz mass that was performed at a local church and which I'm sure if I could get a tape of now would be big laughs for all concerned... I was never disiplined enough to be a jazz player but I listened to an awful lot of it and I played a lot of it in a certain way so that was bound to show up sooner or later too." (interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa Spring 1993.)
Occhipinti remarks on the original songs:
"I didn't have to do very much to some of them. The chords were there, the melody was there and as soon as you had it played by a trumpet or some other instrument it just worked. At the same time, what I wanted to do with this project was take some of the more familiar songs- the hits I guess, and totally present them in a way that would hopefully surprise fans of his music and make them fresh and new." (Bravo's "Arts and Minds" TV profile, November 2000)
The songs chosen are arranged for a core trio of guitar, bass, and drums, with guests. Andrew Downing fills in the bass slot, while Barry Romberg and Jean Martin the drums. Acclaimed clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, saxophonist Mike Murley, and the aforementioned Hugh Marsh on violins and Jon Goldsmith on piano are the guests. The eleven songs are a well chosen mix of "expected" songs, like Wondering Where The Lions Are (here combined with an excerpt of the lesser known Giftbearer) and If I Had A Rocket Launcher, plus more obscure songs like Homme Brûlant and Live On My Mind.
Many of the songs had a "jazzy" feel when Cockburn originally recorded them, but Occhipinti takes them to the next level and makes them actual jazz songs. Mistress Of Storms retains the same urgency and beauty as the original, starting with the core rhythm and melody of the song and then taking off on an improvisational flight with Don Byron's clarinet. Similarly, If I Had A Rocket Launcher lays down the basic framework melody and then devolves/evolves into something altogether wild and new. And in fact, Occhipinti says
"We did a really 'out' version of Rocket Launcher, actually it's not the version that ended up on the record, although its kinda very different in itself and I thought, 'Wow, I don't know what he's [Bruce] gonna think of that', but he actually heard it and thought it was really cool we had done that. (Bravo's "Arts And Minds" TV profile, Nov. 2000)
That's not to say Creation Dream doesn't have its relaxed moments. Live On My Mind acquires a smoky, sultry urban feel, largely due to Kevin Turcotte's trumpet playing. Homme Brûlant, still as haunting and introspective as when Cockburn recorded it on Circles in the Stream, takes on a whole new level of beauty through the violin playing of Hugh Marsh. At times on the song, one is reminded of fusion violinist Jean Luc Ponty.
The title song, though, is the one to turn up loud. It is the most avant-garde of the songs on the CD, with Occhipinti coaxing wails and sharp bursts of textured sound from his instrument. You might say its given the "Lightstorm treatment", referring to the electrifying instrumental from Cockburn's Night Vision album. In contrast to the intensity of this version of Creation Dream, Rumours Of Glory is playful and bouncy and is infectious with its hummable melody. Lord Of The Starfields is the perfect closer to the CD, ending it on a spiritual, hymn-like note.
Successful musical tributes to artists are rare, often trying too hard to be "respectful" and coming off as pointless exact copies of the originals. Still others go too far in the other direction, and the spirit and sound of the original composition is left behind. "Creation Dream: The Songs of Bruce Cockburn", I'm pleased to say falls into neither of these traps. I recommend it to the serious jazz fan, the serious Bruce Cockburn fan, and to any fan of good music.