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Roberto Occhipinti Trio Redefines Saturday Afternoons at Toronto Pub


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Roberto Occhipinti Trio
Dora Keogh Pub
Toronto, Canada
December 19, 2009

Hilario Duran and Roberto Occhipinti

Few world-class jazz trios play at neighborhood pubs. But Toronto has lost two of its most popular venues—goodbye Top O' the Senator; au revoir Montreal Bistro—and several smaller places are helping to kick-start the scene. Why not a cozy bar that bills itself as being "authentic Irish"?

Teenage dancers were leaving the Dora Keogh pub after a Celtic dance contest as three remarkable players—bassist Roberto Occhipinti, pianist Hilario Duran and drummer Mark Kelso—gathered on a hastily assembled bandstand. The long room with knee-high, country-style tables was about to fill up with jazz lovers, who rattled their pints of Guinness with hooting and hollering applause.

Every whoop was for real. Duran grabbed the spotlight through three sets of standards, Latin tunes and originals, filling the room with swinging octaves and light rhythmic touches that blended his Cuban background, jazz and classical roots. The contrast between his cool demeanor and amazingly agile fingers was sufficient to mesmerize listeners all afternoon. It's no wonder Duran has won three Juno Awards (Canada's highest music prize) and performs regularly with countryman Paquito D'Rivera.

While Duran was airborne, Occhipinti's unfailing ear kept the trio rooted on Earth. His meaty bass lines in themselves communicated melodic, personal stories on standards like "Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don't Tease Me)" and "Beautiful Love." An occasional bowed solo or wild storm of notes revealed his virtuosity (he's even known to have surprised jazz audiences with witty versions of Italian opera arias), but on this December day he plucked soulful lines that resonated right to the back of the bar.

Kelso was the perfect match with his sensitive, light touch on drums. He was as comfortable propelling Latin tunes from Duran's upcoming Motion (Alma Records, 2010) as he was on flowing ballads like Ennio Morricone's theme to Cinema Paradiso. In one impressive exchange he traded fours with Duran on "Squeeze Me," skittering along with masterful technique and ending every fourth bar like a high-speed driver with magic, spot-on brakes—never a note over.

It's rare enough hear a group of great musicians, but to catch an ensemble such as this at a pub on a Saturday afternoon was totally unexpected. We can thank Dora Keogh's colorful owner John Maxwell for the surprise. He already treats customers to music as diverse as traditional Irish fare ("a kind of jazz, of course," he says) and the R&B band Soul Stew with Occhipinti on bass. Now Occhipinti's trio plans to play every Saturday afternoon and will likely pack the pub as word gets out.

Dora Keogh aside, Toronto still has venues where jazz lives: The Rex Hotel, Trane Studio, Lulu Lounge and Hugh's Room come to mind. But Toronto remains a city that needs jazz-only clubs for its surprising number of excellent players and thousands of fans (yes, they're out there: D'Rivera nearly filled Koerner Hall's 1,140 seats in December). Some say Ontario liquor licenses make it harder for jazz joints to thrive thanks to a two-drink minimum and a rule that bars must serve food. But that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Occhipinti put it well between sets, calling Dora Keogh "a Trojan horse" in Toronto's jazz scene.

Photo credit
Max Sennit


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