Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon

Shine On: the Universe of John Lennon is a spectacular group made of some of Canada’s most renowned musicians, performing music by John Lennon and the Beatles uniquely arranged by Michael Occhipinti. Featuring the wonderful and distinct voices of Yvette Tollar, Dominic Mancuso, and Elizabeth Shepherd, paired with the singular talents of Mark Kelso (drums), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Roberto Occhipinti (bass), and Michael Occhipinti (guitar), this unique group came together in December of 2010 for a special concert to mark the 30th Anniversary of John Lennon’s passing. Thrilled at the chance to work together, the musicians released a recording, under the same title, together in spring 2012 (True North Records).

Why another Beatles-related tribute in a world with so many? Guitarist Michael Occhipinti has participated in a few tributes himself, and always felt that too many artists miss the opportunity to do something new with the material. As he told arts reporter Errol Nazareth, “our familiarity with Lennon’s music is kind of liberating from an arranger’s point of view. It’ll allow us to stretch out and alter the songs in different ways and open them up for improvising,” he explains. “And people will still be able to reference the original in their head.  For me it’s never been about replicating music but rather trying to reinvent it in a way that’s creative while still expressing an admiration for the source material. It’s really quite limitless,” Occhipinti adds. “My personal challenge is trying to make each arrangement a little different from the others, although when I listen to Beatles albums like Revolver that’s exactly what I hear them doing, too.”

JUNO recognised singers Yvette Tollar, Elizabeth Shepherd and Dominic Mancuso are three of Canada’s most distinct and popular vocalists and when the opportunity to collaborate arose, Michael jumped at the chance. “I wanted to work with them on this project because they’ll put their own stamp on whatever they sing, and they are such strong singers that I feel I can arrange the music however I wish and they will sing it beautifully,” he says. The music includes pieces John Lennon performed as a Beatle and songs from his solo career. Michael Occhipinti is no stranger to reinventing popular music, having received a JUNO nomination for his Creation Dream – The Songs of Bruce Cockburn and transformed Sicilian folk music on his most recent and highly acclaimed The Sicilian Jazz Project, which was a 2009 JUNO nominee and garnered Michael and brother Roberto the prestigious Ragusani nel Mondo Award in Ragusa, Sicily. Among the pieces the group performs are a reinvention of “Instant Karma,” which is transformed by new harmony and rhythm and Dominic Mancuso’s warm, personal take on Lennon. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I’m Only Sleeping” reference John Lennon’s pioneering use of backwards guitar effects, with the former song featuring Kevin Turcotte’s inventive trumpet work over layers of swirling guitar texture. Elizabeth Shepherd approaches “Across The Universe” in a beautiful intimate way that ultimately introduces an unexpected and haunting improvised section. Other songs include “Julia” and “Beautiful Boy” which are among Lennon’s most tender work, and pieces such as “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” and “Don’t Let Me Down” that allow the band to have some fun with funkier grooves.

Each of the musicians in Shine On are renowned artists who lead their own acclaimed projects, and it is a testament to the artistry of the project that all are thrilled at the prospect of recording and touring together. The sold-out crowd that greeted their debut in December 2012 made it clear that people are thrilled to hear John Lennon’s work presented in new ways.