If, like me, you live outside Canada, you may not know about NOJOthe Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra. But major talents like Joe Lovano, Kenny Wheeler, and Ray Anderson know NOJO, and have all played or recorded with the group. The 16-piece Toronto-based ensemble has won numerous Canadian jazz awards for their highly original, progressive big band sound, but for some reason they still don't have an American distribution deal. That ought to change after record companies south of the border get a listen to NOJO's new album "You Are Here," which features a guest appearance by kindred free spirit, clarinetist Don Byron.
NOJO plays an enormously appealing, upbeat blend of Mingus-influenced jazz with tastes of rock, funk, blues, film soundtrack, cartoon musichell, just about everything including barnyard honksmixed in. This is fusion in the most positive sense of the word: loose, raucous, unpredictable, and unafraid to cross musical barriers or challenge listeners.
Unlike most contemporary big bands, which tend to rely almost entirely on the standard repertoire, "You Are Here" features exclusively original compositions by NOJO's leaders, pianist Paul Neufeld and guitarist Michael Occhipinti. Songs like "Zawashorius" (dedicated to Joe Zawanul, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report) and "Salmon Snacks" (described as "cartoon swing tango music for Don Byron") give some indication of where these guys are coming from.
In addition to their wide-ranging musical interests, Neufeld and Occhipinti bring something to their writing and arranging that's missing from most of today's jazza sense of humor. They clearly have a lot of fun playing and their enthusiasm is contagious. In fact, the only other large ensemble I've heard recently that matches NOJO's high energy and musicianship is the acclaimed Mingus Big Band, a group with two built-in advantages: the Charles Mingus songbook and a rotating lineup of several dozen of New York's best players.
With its homegrown talent, fresh compositions, and ringers like Byron sitting in, NOJO is easily one of the most exciting big bands anywhere. And hopefully you'll be able to hear them outside Canada some time soon.