A Brief History of a Genre-Resisting Guitarist, Composer, and Band Leader

Michael Occhipinti is a versatile, sound-sculpting guitarist and composer/arranger, who has spent decades freely moving between jazz, chamber music, world music, r&b/funk, and anything involving modern guitar sounds. Michael has received 11 JUNO Award nominations (Canada's Grammy) and 2 JUNO Awards including the 2022 JUNO Award for Jazz Group of the Year as a member of Avataar.  2022 also saw his duo with Elizabeth Shepherd (ES:MO) nominated for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year.    In addition to ES:MO, Michael leads or co-leads several acclaimed groups including The Sicilian Jazz Project, IN ORBIT ( with Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) on saxophone, and Felix Pastorius on bass), Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon,  The Triodes,  and the acclaimed 16-piece group NOJO (Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra).

Michael's creative guitar playing has made him the ideal compliment to a diverse range of groups,  including the aforementioned Avataar, Italian vocalist (and frequent guest with the Sicilian Jazz Project) Ilaria (Pilar) Patassini, and chamber group The Gryphon Trio.  He’s as happy playing clean rhythm guitar with his funk band Grooveyard as he is creating stunning ambient sounds behind the Turkish electronic group Minor Empire.  The range of Michael's musical experience is best illustrated in the many celebrated musicians Michael has performed with, including  Bruce Cockburn, Don Byron, Stewart Goodyear, The Cecilia String Quartet, Kenny Wheeler, Trey Anastasio, Divine Brown, The Toronto Symphony, Sam Rivers, Tony Allen, Joe Lovano, Laila Biali, The Gryphon Trio, Dave Douglas, Andrea Bocelli,  Bill Frisell, and the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra.   Michael Occhipinti's touring resume includes The Umbria Jazz Festival (Italy), the Festival Cultural de Zacatecas (Mexico), the Jazz Yatra (India), The Ubuntu Project (Netherlands), Musikfest (USA), the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (Canada), and numerous other venues around the world. 

Michael's own projects explore everything from Sicilian culture to songwriters such as John Lennon and Bruce Cockburn, instrumental New Orleans funk, and adventurous original music for both small groups and string orchestras.  Michael has received commissions to compose music for the Royal Conservatory of Music's 21C Festival of new music (featuring The Gryphon Trio and Don Byron),  for bassoonist Nadina Mackie-Jackson and trumpeter Guy Few and the Group of 27’s JUNO Nominated Canadian Concerto Vol. 1, for Quartetto Gelato's 100% Canadian, and is currently writing a piece for the Kitchener-Waterloo Guitar Orchestra.   Michael’s versatile guitar palette can be heard on recent albums by Elizabeth Shepherd,Melody Diachun's Music of Sting, Peter Campbell, the Mexican-reggae mashup of Los Variants, Italian vocalist Giuseppe di Bella's Orfeo project, Louis Simao’s Brazilian/Portuguese world jazz album A Luz, and Michael’s work with soul/pop singer Lester McLean. 

Michael teaches jazz ensembles and songwriting at the Royal Conservatory of Music, guitar and pop ensembles at Centennial College,  and leads the jazz orchestra at McMaster University.  Michael has given clinics at universities and schools across Canada, the Netherlands, and Sicily.   Michael Occhipinti has been profiled on Bravo TV's Arts and Minds, CBC television's On The Arts, CBC radio's Canada Live , CTV’s Mike Bullard Show and TV Ontario's Studio 2. His projects have been praised by critics worldwide, including the American magazines DownBeat and Jazz Times, Italy’s Il Sole and Musica Jazz, and newspapers in India, The Netherlands, and across Canada.   

Michael Occhipinti is a Music Programmer for Hugh's Room Live, and served as the Artistic Director for the Markham Jazz Festival from 2009-2015, growing the festival and presenting international artists such as Lionel Loueke, Bill Charlap, Don Byron, Dave Douglas, John Pizzarelli, Sheila Jordan, and Maceo Parker.  He has also been a past director of Lakefield Summer Music. 

Michael Occhipinti is in the process of completing his M.A. in Composition at York University.  Michael has attended the Banff Centre for The Arts jazz workshops three times, working with faculty such as Slide Hampton, John Clayton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Mick Goodrick, Bunky Green, Steve Coleman, and Hugh Fraser.  Michael received his BFA (Hons). from York University in Toronto.

“The Sicilian Jazz Project is an astonishingly salient new sound in the jazz spectrum”           Stephen Pedersen, Halifax Chronicle Herald  

“They blew everyone away!  Supergroup is a term that’s thrown around all too often, but In Orbit are an authentic example of musical synergy.  The lineup features names that will get your attention on first glance, and the music these guys put together is powerful, funky, and out of this world!  Can’t wait to book them again.”                                   Paul Hinrichs, Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival 

“Occhipinti’s re-imaginings don’t sound like pure Sicilian music, nor are they intended to. Instead, they’re the sound of a musician who knows where he came from and where he’s going – and that’s a beautiful thing.”                               Alex Varty,The Georgia Straight  

There's nothing novel about musicians drawing on folk melodies, nor is there anything new in an artist exploring his heritage through music.What makes Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project stand out - apart from the sheer gorgeousness of the sound - is the way he brings those elements to bear upon his music. Playing off the natural swing of the melodies, Occhipinti gives these songs full benefit of his imagination, casting them as everything from warped bop (Jolla) to swirling, worldbeat rock (Vitti'na crozza). And though the songs may sound as old as time itself, the performances are fresh and invigorating.”                    J.D. Considine,The Globe and Mail 


2022 JUNO Award Nominee

Featuring Jeff Coffin, Felix Pastorius, Davide Direnzo, and Tom Reynolds

Michael Occhipinti's album MUORICA explores Sicilian language and music with a brilliant cast of musicians and inventive arrangements that freely cross genres!

2012 - The music of John Lennon and the Beatles gets re-imagined, with surprising arrangements and unique vocalists.

NOJO, the Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra, performs its unique arrangement of Pink Floyd's classic Dark Side of The Moon live in concert.

The Triodes is an instrumental funk group influenced by The Meters, Booker T, and jazz jam sound of Medeski Martin and Wood and John Scofield. The record features great grooves and catchy riffs.

A 2009 JUNO nominee, Michael Occhipinti's "The Sicilian Jazz Project" uses Alan Lomax's recordings of miners and peasants as a jumping off point for a passionate and compelling interpretation of Sicilian folk songs as a blend of jazz and world music.