NOJO at the Top o' the Senator (172 Victoria), through Sunday (May 26). $12-$15. 416-364-7517.
The logistical nightmare of holding a 16-piece big band together no longer keeps Paul Neufeld and Michael Occhipinti awake at night, but running NOJO is anything but a breeze. The Toronto-based Neufeld Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra's current cross-country tour still requires two minivans to get the truncated nine-member touring band from city to city, but the two composers insist the effort is worth it.
Not only are Occhipinti and Neufeld still able to get the members of NOJO into one room after eight years together, but they've also continued to push their creative jazz orchestra further with each project.
NOJO's new Highwire album is the group's most cohesive and confident to date, packed with typically adventurous writing by the two leaders and featuring the playing to match each hairpin turn the guitarist and pianist might throw at the band.
"NOJO is active infrequently enough that every time we get together it's a blast," Neufeld laughs from the Vancouver airport before a flight to Calgary. "It's a social as well as an artistic event, so it's very hard for it to grow stale.
"I was actually worried at first, thinking, "Oh, we're just doing it again,' but the writing has changed a lot. The band also sounds confident. The music doesn't freak these guys out any more. We can throw really hard stuff at them and they get it fast.
"You need to have people who don't throw their hands up. They go home and work on things and are up for the challenge of the band."
The band's stability is part of their success. Neufeld and Occhipinti have kept many of the same musicians with them for the entire run of the project, and have picked up a few esteemed guests along the way.
Clarinetist Don Byron initially joined NOJO as a guest on 1999's You Are Here and hasn't left yet, virtually becoming a regular member of the band.
"In some ways he is part of the band. He feels like he's part of it, too, and it's really natural when he's there. He doesn't just need to solo all the time; he likes being in the section and making the ensemble sound better," Neufeld explains.
Highwire was recorded on September 10, 11 and 12, before, during and after the suicide bombings in New York and Washington. The effect of those events on the music itself is debatable.
"That day was a real toss-up," Neufeld offers. "We ended up still going into the studio and spent a long time just talking about what was going on. Eventually, though, it made sense to keep working. We were paying for the room, and we already had everyone there, which is a really hard thing for us to do.
"All the music was written well before that day, but I think there was a lingering effect there. Everyone was really emotional at the time, maybe a bit rawer or something. There's some pretty intense soloing on the record, with guys just going for it.
"That's evidence of what was going through people's minds on that day."firstname.lastname@example.org