Despite its size, the 16-member Toronto based Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, is not a typical big band by any stretch of the imagination. Likened more to avant-garde and free jazz artists like Henry Threadgill, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk than to late jazz greats like Count Basie, Woody Herman, or Duke Ellington, the band is known for pushing the musical envelope with its visionary approach to sound and structure.
"Theirs is the most venturesome jazz orchestra in the city, if only for the example they take from writers such as Henry Threadgill and Kenny Wheeler and the influence they have found in the music of various African cultures," wrote jazz critic Mark Miller in the Globe and Mail. "It's tough, provocative jazz."
Formed in 1994 by York University classmates Paul Neufeld, a pianist, and Michael Occhipinti, a guitarist—both earned Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees from the university in 1992—the pair was seeking a suitable venue to showcase their extraordinary skills as composers, honed in a jazz composition/arranging class with David Mott. Both played with smaller ensembles on their own—Occhipinti under his own name, and Neufeld with the Rhythm and Truth Brass Band, among others. To their surprise they found that a big band environment, although typically associated with oldstyle, swing jazz, was the perfect forum in which to combine their multi-layered compositions, which incorporate elements of world-beat, country, blues and experimental music in addition to jazz. "This band started as a workshop for our own material, and it continues to be the place where we teach ourselves and each other about writing music," Neufeld explained in Words & Music.
And that music, as some jazz musicians might say, is way out. "Neufeld and Occhipinti obviously enjoy being fractious and unpredictable, filling their compositions with lurching figures, curious turns and sudden developments that have the effect of keeping the musicians perpetually off-balance," Miller wrote in a 1997 review of one of the band's live performances.
While more established musicians were invited to give the group a try when Neufeld and Occhipinti began their venture, the pair ended up going with lesser-known artists to achieve their desired sound. "I think what works to our advantage is that there's a real youth factor to NOJO," Neufeld said. "There's an energy that comes from younger musicians and an open-mindedness that might not exist if we had some mainstream players."
That youth factor has created a sound which has garnered accolades practically from day one. NOJO's first album, which is self-titled, earned the 1995 Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year at the Juno Awards. The band's second release, FireWater, was nominated for a 1996 Juno in the same category. In addition, renowned American jazz clarinetist Don Byron sat in with the group for a set of gigs at Top O' The Senator in Toronto in June of 1997. Neufeld and Occhipinti composed some tunes especially for Byron, and also rewrote some older NOJO pieces to feature the clarinetist more prominently. Playing with Byron was a high honor for NOJO. "For us, it's like going three on three with Michael Jordan or playing shinny with Gretzky," Occhipinti told Geoff Chapman in the Toronto Star. "With Don's talent we feel we've stumbled onto something really different."
Clarinetist Don Byron became a regular fixture on NOJO recordings, appearing as a guest soloist on their next two releases, You Are Here and Highwire. Other featured soloists include violinist Hugh Marsh, trombonist Ray Anderson, tenor saxophonists Sam Rivers and Joe Lovano, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.
"A lot of time has passed since the mainstream of jazz tradition was established," Neufeld said. "We both have strong feelings about jazz as a living tradition that's got to be relevant to what's happening now. We're not just looking to 1950s' Miles Davis as an inspiration—there are a lot of things that happened in the 1960s and 1970s that changed the way we look at music. It's important to take those things into account so the music's not a museum piece or treated like classical music."
"I love playing standards and I'm glad there are people who do it, but I'm also glad there are people doing newer things," Occhipinti added. "There are other jazz voices that need to be heard, and I think we're one of them."
NOJO signed to True North Records, a label not known for releasing jazz albums, for their third and fourth releases, You Are Here and Highwire. Speaking in the Globe and Mail, Occhipinti was pleased to be associated with the label. "We like the fact that they're not a jazz label. Their idea is, 'We like this record and we don't necessarily listen to a lot of jazz, so other people who don't necessarily listen to a lot of jazz might like it too.'" With the release of You Are Here, NOJO reached out to listeners beyond the Canadian border by arranging to release the album in the United States and going on tour both in the United States and overseas to promote the release. "I enjoy doing this a great deal," Neufeld stated. "So how can I do more of it? There's no way we're going to do this as much as I'd like if we keep being a local band."
After nearly a decade with NOJO, Neufeld spoke to Mark Miller of the Globe and Mail about the band's growth. "The modus operandi is still the same. We're trying to have a vehicle to do as freely as possible whatever comes to mind, with no other aesthetic concerns beyond that." Then he added, "The band is much less flappable that it once was. We can throw stuff at the musicians and they get it right away."
For the Record . . .
Members include founders Paul Neufeld , piano; Michael Occhipinti , guitar.
Band formed, 1994; released debut album, NOJO, 1995; released second album, FireWater, 1996; released You Are Here, 1998; released Highwire, 2002.
Awards: Juno Award, Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year for NOJO, 1995; Jazz Report, Big Band of the Year, 1999; National Jazz Award, Big Band of the Year, 2002.
Addresses: Record company— True North Records, 260 Richmond St. W., Ste. 501, Toronto, Ontario M5V 1W5, Canada, phone: (416) 596-8696, fax: (416) 596-6861, website: http://www.truenorthrecords.com.
NOJO, Auracle, 1995.
FireWater, Auracle, 1996.
You Are Here, True North, 1998.
Highwire, True North, 2002.
Globe and Mail, February 6, 1995; June 7, 1997; May 25, 1998; November 19, 1998; May 1, 2002.
Performing Arts, Summer 1997.
Toronto Star, February 20, 1995.
Words & Music, May 1997.
York University Alumni Magazine, February 1996.
"NOJO: Artist Homepage," True North Records, http://www.truenorthrecords.com/mainartist.php?artist_id=79 (April 20, 2004).