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A New Face - Make Mine an OliRockberger Please- with Zero Cheese!

By Published: October 3, 2003

The rule from my experience is that if you are enjoying playing a certain section, if it?s feeling good, then it is good!

With the publication of this interview I'm completely confident my A&R chops will be recognized in written or verbal, but in all probability, not financial form. Unless you're Bostonian and attend ensembles, rehearsals, recitals and commencements at Berklee- or this year, attended the UK's Brecon Jazz Festival- you wouldn't know who Oliver Rockberger is, but as you continue to follow the music, you will. He's as much of a slam-dunk talent as any artist I've ever reviewed or interviewed, but I officially place readers on notice that it's not necessarily in the all about jazz vein.

No question he's a positively mind-blowing, ultra-emotive young jazz pianist; thing is, he also turns out to be a vocalist, possessing that well-known and well-loved Stingy, Gabrielly, Collinsy tenor rasp. At 23, he's proffering his own brand of feel-good melancholia in the jazz-pop, singer-songwriter category. He's a jazzy-R&B-laced pop whiz kid, who also happens upon the good fortune, at such an early juncture, of having the assistance of two ideally sympathetic and equally young brothers-in-arms, English bassist Tony Grey and Ecuadorian drummer Chris Farr .

The influences here are easily identifiable and recognizable- you know, biggies. Oliver's music sounds very much like the logical product of equal parts ECM and Motown, Keith Jarrett crossed up with Stevie, or the Yellowjackets hanging with David Foster. But here's a critical aspect and the link to the title of this piece - the kids fully recognize some of the obvious musical pitfalls of the genre, making sure to consistently navigate their course way 'round the seas of cheese.

Already the subject of some attention in his native London, Oli had played Royal Festival Hall and been identified by the London Times as a "Great British Hope" by age eighteen. While immersing himself in studies and a surfeit of projects at Berklee, his public "career" has been, quite cheerfully, on hold. Join us in marking his reemergence with an AAJ interview, conducted mostly from over-the-pond via email.

All About Jazz: How old you are and where you are from? Where's you home now?

Oliver Rockberger : I am 23 years old and am from London, England. I am currently living in Boston, USA.

AAJ: How did you first get into music?

OR: It was through the records which my parents used to play around the house when I was a little kid- Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder), Night Train (Oscar Peterson) and The Organ Grinder?s Swing (Jimmy Smith) had a major impact on me as well as recordings of James Taylor, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, The Crusaders and Randy Crawford. At the time we had an upright piano in the living room and I would sit down at it, before my legs could touch the pedals, and make up tunes. I tried classical lessons, but had to come to music in my own way, and just explored it on my own until I found jazz pianist/educator Leon Cohen at age 11. I studied privately with him right up until Berklee.

AAJ: So these were your first influences, then.

OR: Until I was about 10 years old. At 11, I heard Keith Jarrett's tune "Country" off a wonderful album with Jan Garbarek entitled My Song. I had never realized that a piano could sound like he made it sound in that song. I also saw Keith Jarrett perform live at age 11. In his encore he played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - I thought I had died and gone to heaven. James Taylor was also a seminal influence for me. I had a cassette tape with Sweet Baby James on one side, and Mud Slide Slim on the other, and I used to listen to it all the time, especially on family holidays - I would put it in my Walkman and listen over and over and over. James Taylor has such a soothing voice, and for me is one of the world's greatest storytellers.

Eric Clapton was also one of my first influences- I loved Journeyman and the Unplugged record also. Looking back on it, I think Eric Clapton inspired me a great deal because he showed me that it is possible to be great across many areas in music- as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter. Clapton has achieved excellence for many years at the highest possible level in the pop world.

For similar reasons, I'd have to say that Stevie Wonder is quite possibly my greatest singer/songwriter influence. The depth of his musicality is constantly astounding to me. Songs in The Key of Life is a "Desert Island Disk." Sting was also one of my first major influences, specifically with the songs "Fields of Gold" and "Seven Days"- I own all his solo records. He has a voice like the sun shining, immense lyrical depth and compositional sophistication.

My other first major influence was Pat Metheny who I saw in London at age 14 with the Pat Metheny Group. Metheny for me is at the very pinnacle of creating music which is deeply melodic, harmonically rich, and at the same time accessible to a large audience- everything I hope my music to be. All of these artists continue to be major influences for me today and always will be.

AAJ: And now?

OR: I think it's very important that as a musician you remain open to influences. If you want to keep evolving as an artist, then you need to keep actively seeking out inspiration. When I started Berklee in '99, I was introduced through friends to Gospel/Soul/R&B and was listening to (to name a few) Take 6, Kirk Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. I also discovered Michael MacDonald, Bruce Hornsby, D'Angelo, an English artist called Lewis Taylor and saxophonist Kenny Garett who is one of favorite improvisers. Most recently I have discovered a love for Peter Gabriel, George Duke and Brian McKnight. I got the opportunity whilst at Berklee to perform synths alongside R&B/gospel pianist/singer/songwriter Frank McComb and he has also become a major recent influence for me.

AAJ: What musical experiences in England precipitated your attendance at Berklee? It seems you already had some notoriety in England before going off to music school. How'd that happen?

OR: In my senior year of high school, I was in my own trio and we entered a competition called Music For Youth. We ended up winning the award for Outstanding Ensemble and I won "The New Composition Award" and "The Roland Piano Award." Our prize was to perform at Royal Albert Hall as part of "The School Proms." Performing at the Royal Albert Hall would be amazing at any age, but we were 18 years old! It was a life changing experience for us. I was interviewed by the "Times" in a series entitled "Great British Hopes" and so there was a little buzz at the time- but nothing major. It' only now that my profile is starting to increase in the UK as result of my band's recent performance at the Brecon Jazz Festival.

AAJ: Why did you pick Berklee? Was your time there your most intense growth period as a musician? If not, what was?

OR: Berklee has a terrific reputation in Europe as being the finest schools of contemporary music in the world. I received a scholarship to the 5-Week Summer Performance Program at age 17 and thought it was an amazing school. I auditioned in Barcelona in December '97 for a scholarship to the undergraduate program and discovered two weeks later that I had received a full tuition scholarship to attend. I cried in amazement and disbelief when I heard the news. Receiving that award is my most significant moment in music so far and is something I regard as one of my greatest successes.

My time at Berklee was absolutely my most intense growth period as a musician- the classes I took, the people I played with, the shows I played, the visiting artists I played with. it all took me so much further forward as a young musician and artist.

AAJ: What have been some of the most important concepts you?ve taken away from the academic part of your experience?

OR: That compositional theory and instrumental technique is the toolbox from which you can construct and that what you can construct depends a great deal on the tools in your box! Berklee was the perfect place for me to sharpen my existing tools and to acquire some new ones. The next challenge beyond the acquisition of these kinds of skills is learning how to apply that knowledge in a creative and personal way to create original art. For me this came after graduating, as I think it does for many people. The Berklee environment forces you to say, "Okay, we are all here learning the same information, but how do I use it in a way which makes me me, and not you?" It also forced me to learn how to be my own teacher and musical master- this, in my opinion, is essential in continuing to develop as an artist. These are just some of the things I learned at Berklee.

AAJ: You seem comfortable with the intricacies of music theory and its application to improvisation and composition. How much of that element do you bring into the compositional process? It probably varies based on the composition and the goals of the composition, right?

OR: My harmonic techniques and approaches are always there when I write. However, these days, harmony has become more and more instinctive. I think this is only because I have been through the stage of writing with great conscious awareness of harmonic motion and other theoretical considerations. Once I exhausted thinking things through in a mathematical way as I played them, my brain began to make the connections and hear those relationships in an automatic and instinctive way. The brain must be trained to do this and I think I managed to train my brain in this way without realizing that I was doing it at the time. When I've exhausted my current techniques and try to amass new information, as I will inevitably need to, then I'll probably go through the same process once again of intellectualizing in the hope that I'll soon reach a greater instinctive and natural understanding of the same concepts.

Most composers and songwriters say that the natural and instinctive process previously described, once attained through hard work, is continually interrupted in moments where the tool box needs to be opened to solve a specific problem such as, "How do I modulate here?" or "How do I get back to the original key?" or "What are the same chords in this new key?" or "How should I re-harmonize this section?" or "Why does the movement between these two sections feel jerky and how I do I smooth it over?" etc.

Understanding that composition requires the use of different parts of the brain- the left and the right, the creative and the analytical, and learning to balance the two, has been very important to me in my development as a writer.

AAJ: Who are some of the great young fellow students and players you've met and gigged with at Berklee?

OR: There have been so many. Tony Grey (who plays bass in my band) is a phenomenal bassist, a musical and creative spirit, who is at once exciting and adventurous, tasteful and hard grooving. His technique is remarkable and playing with him is always experimental, dynamic and interactive. Tony finds and creates his own place in each song, and understands on a deep level when to adapt himself to the song, and when to adapt the song to himself, which is a rare skill.

Chris Farr, who now plays drums in my band, is one of the only drummers I have worked with who could make me cry with his playing. He is a musician who deeply understands the notion of playing the song and not just his instrument, or the specific section at hand. He is one of the most creative drummers I have worked with, balancing impeccable taste, soul and groove, with exceptional listening and support. He is very mature in his approach to music-making and this separates him in my mind from many top quality young drummers out there. I am constantly moved playing with both of them at the level of communication and dialogue which goes on during a performance.

Mitch Cohn is another great young bassist- we've worked on my material and on his original music. He has been a very important and positive influence on me as a writer and as a player. Jordan Perlson, a young Berklee drummer with whom I have worked a great deal, was one of the first drummers who I worked with on my original music and is a hard-grooving, extremely versatile and tasty drummer. He set the benchmark high in my mind for what I would like a drummer to bring to my music.

It was an honor to share the stage with Hiromi Uehara in the Berklee Performance Center for the 2002 Commencement Concert. She is one of the finest young pianists around, a great friend and is very supportive to me. Other young Berklee pianists/keyboardists to look out for are Ruslan Sirota, Romain Collin and Davy Nathan who are great inspirations to me whenever I see and hear them play. Performing with electric bassist Mark Kelly [note: Kelly is now with John Scofield] at Boston's Wally's was another period of immense growth for me and he is one of my favorite young musicians too.

Gilad Ronin, a young saxophonist from Israel on his way to the Monk Institute, is another favorite as well as tenor player Walter Smith III. Japanese drummer Akira Nakamura, guitarist/producer Josh Sadlier Brown from Canada, and vocalist Nia Allen are also favorites of mine. So many superb musicians come to Berklee every term and I'm convinced that I went to school with some of the best young musicians in the world.

AAJ: How did you find the current guys in your band?

I met Tony half way through my first term at Berklee and Chris in my second. We played together for a while on other people's projects, and regularly at Lucky's Lounge, a club in South Boston. During this period the three of us have developed a deep personal and musical connection. We've been playing my original music since February ?03.

AAJ: So you just came off some gigs at a pretty major English jazz festival. How'd that happen?

OR: A friend of mine who is from the town where the Festival is held (Brecon) had the details for the man who books the groups. I sent him an email and a disk and he really liked it. We then entered negotiations.

AAJ: I understand you've recently completed a demo. Can you explain some of the concept and focus behind it?

OR: When it was confirmed that we were going to be performing at Brecon, I decided that we had to have some kind of high quality recording with us. It is virtually impossible to promote a performance without a disc, and I wanted to start to build some kind of following. You need people to have your music, to remember you, and to start to take an interest in your career movements. So we recorded a few vocal tunes, some instrumental ones, and a solo piano piece, all with John Weston at Futura Productions in Boston. It was a pleasure working with him. I am very happy with how the EP turned out-it's seven tracks - and we hope that it can help open the door to more recording and performing opportunities in the very near future!

AAJ: Tell us about some of the gigging you've done with folks with a bit of name recognition.

OR: Since attending Berklee I had the chance to perform with visiting artists to the college- Abe Laboriel, Frank McComb with Branford Marsalis, and Jackie DeShannon, and clinics with Patti Austin and Greg Philinganes.

AAJ: Any other sideman work you'd like to hip the audience to?

OR: I've performed at the Berklee with guitarist and faculty member David Fiuczynski of the Screaming Headless Torsos, Michel N'degeocello, Christian McBride, etc., which was a great honor. He is a true artist, producing exciting music at the very cutting edge. I have also performed with gospel/R&B singer Larry Watson a tremendous performer and vocalist. We played at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston, and more recently, Fenway Park!

AAJ: What axes do you focus on with your projects? Is it mostly acoustic? Certainly the demo is.Have you always also played Rhodes and synth, or is that a relatively recent development?

OR: My project is mainly acoustic. I consider myself a pianist above all and right now my music is written with the piano in mind, although it could change in the future. I have a MOTIF 8 which is great for writing on and I am hoping to combine it with acoustic piano in my live performances in the near future. I am a great fan of the Yamaha P80 stage piano series and use that a lot for gigs. Actually, I don't own a Rhodes but hope to have one of my own someday. I'm a big Rhodes fan- one of my favorite Rhodes players is Frank McComb, who's amazing- particularly his use of effects, wah, phasing, and overall touch.

In terms of synth versus electric piano versus acoustic, it really depends on the project which I am being asked to do. Of course as a sideman, I'll do whatever the artist wants. Given the choice though, I am more a piano man I love playing acoustic piano on pop, folk and gospel tracks. This is my strength as a sideman and is what I'm called for. I recently played acoustic piano on a track for UK pop star Ronan Keating (Boy Zone). I was also called to play on a record for UK jazz/gospel saxophonist Mark Bunney, and on a country/folk record for American singer/songwriter Duncan Waters.

AAJ: In terms of harmonic territory, are there particular sources that you would point interested people towards? What books or recordings would you particularly advise students of harmony, improvisation and "time" concepts to seek out?

OR: Brazilian harmony has been invaluable to me, and opened many doors in my writing. There is so much to be learned from Brazilian artists like Milton Nascimiento, Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ivan Lins. For improvisation I really like Hal Crook's How to Improvise which has amazing concepts and ways of practicing and applying them. Dave Liebman's Chromatic Concepts in Improvisation is also very interesting. Another book by Dave Liebman called Portrait of a Jazz Artist is a great book dealing with many musical, and business issues which jazz artists have to face.

AAJ: Are there particular elements of improvisation that are particularly fruitful for you, concepts that you keep revisiting and/or reinventing that keep your playing and your lines cutting edge and fresh?

OR: One of my interests is improvising harmony-compositional improvisation. I try to incorporate my love of compositional and harmonic improvisation into my linear "changes" improvisation. When given a set of changes I like to explore different upper structure sounds over the given bass note, various modal voicings, and chord quality changes in order to personalize the progression, to give it my own interpretation and a slightly different character. Jumping between what is given by the composer and what is created by me is a balance which I am always working on in my improvising.

AAJ: What aspects of your own playing style would you point listeners to- How would you attempt describing your own playing style?

OR: This is always a difficult question to answer. I think and hope that my pianistic touch and sound is quite personal and warm, with a distinctive time feel, use of harmony and approach to voicing. My playing reflects a real mixture of gospel, folk, pop and jazz, and when I improvise, I don't think of it as being jazz necessarily, but rather a combination of what I like to hear, and what I like to play, which is all of the above. People say to me that they can hear many influences when they hear me play, and that it is unique in that respect. I try to combine a thematic and compositional approach to improvisation with a funkier more risk taking "on the edge" approach too when the moment calls for it.

AAJ: What aspects of your compositional style would you point listeners to? How would you attempt describing your own compositional style?

OR: I know what I want from my compositions- whether I achieve those goals is of course down to the listener to say. Lyrically speaking, I want to write music which communicates something powerful and personal and that can also be understood and felt in a universal way by the listener through identifying with the song's narrator. I want to create a space in time that is safe and soothing for people, where they can go and in those 4/5 minutes can consistently feel protected, understood and/or have some feeling or wish validated each time they come to it. Physical travel and emotional travel are strong themes in my music and the writing often explores people's capacity to change for the better and to move forward in their lives. I try to balance a relaxed and humorous conversational approach with a more descriptive prose style in an attempt to keep the writing interesting and vibrant. From a harmonic point of view, I'm a fan of rich harmony, and I try to take advantage of my studies and extensive listening when I come to my own compositions.

One of the things I love the most about the Pat Metheny Group and the Yellowjackets is the way in which they doctor recurring themes in sometimes subtle, sometimes more drastic ways, through re-harmonization and adventurous modulations. This keeps the music consistently stimulating and is something I try to achieve in my songs. Arrangement plays a huge part in my compositions too and you will often hear melodies and themes doubled between Tony and myself, instrumental sections that are through-composed, and instrumental solo sections. We are all dedicated instrumentalists and I feel that the music should reflect this too.

AAJ: What events transpired that are bringing your own band into greater focus?

OR: The Brecon Jazz Festival has definitely brought the band into greater focus and we hope that through festivals and other high profile performance opportunities our profile will continue to grow. We also received radio airplay on two separate occasions last month on the UK's nationwide station, Jazz FM. That also has helped to raise our profile somewhat. Right now the Oli Rockberger Band is my primary solo focus and I try to put as much creative energy in to that as I possibly can.

AAJ: Are any of your compositions written off of jams? Or are they all written out?

OR: I always compose on my own first. I then write out charts for Tony and Chris and present it to them in a rehearsal. I consider this to be a first draft situation, although I allow for the possibility that it could equally be a final draft situation too. We play through the tune and they start to experiment with their parts, making arrangement suggestions to me where necessary. I often mini-disc rehearsals and will then go away and try and fix certain sections which may not be working for some reason or another. I then write a new chart with the changes I've made and we come back the next time and see how the re-writes feel.

I have learned so much from working on my music with my own groups. Getting into the habit of being constructively critical about one's work is very important. Accepting when something is not working is critical, and then having the discipline to re-write until it is right it essential to me. Giving a section the lift it needs is often a question of experimentation I think. I may never know why a particular section is not working. Sometimes it is a mystery and when it's not working, I try to be flexible, exploring other options in groove, feel, form, tempo, dynamic build etc. Playing with Tony & Chris who can adapt what they have been given, translating suggestions and reservations into their own musical interpretations, is critical to our process.

A chart when you first get it is like a brand new bed. Eventually you want the bed to adapt to the individual curve of your body, while maintaining its basic, supportive constitution. Songs are the same- the defining properties of the song should always remain clearly intact, but there should be ways the song adjusts to the players who are playing it. This collective musical input helps to breathe life in to my songs and aims to make the listener feel as though we are all speaking the words to them, even if I am the only one who is literally singing them. This is all about giving the composition the chance to be the best that it can. I've found that this is about taking pride in the process of getting it to its greatest potential. I've also found that remaining open to suggestions and critique by my colleagues makes the music far better.

Although Tony and Chris are clearly creatively involved in the composition and arrangement, they also bring a certain level of objectivity to the music which I can never have as the primary writer of the tunes. Their balance between involvement and detachment puts my band members in a unique position to help me to get the music to where it needs to be. I take their comments very seriously and when a tune is "happening" after much work, I think all three of us feel a great sense of collective and individual achievement.

The rule from my experience is that if you are enjoying playing a certain section, if it's feeling good, then it is good! We keep working with a particular section until we achieve that feeling - that you could live in that section forever- because in songs, it will be the same each time it comes around, until you actually change the part? so it better feel and sound great before you start playing it out there!

AAJ: What kind of recording technology have you been using? Hard disc or analog? Do you have a home studio? How much unreleased music do you have written or demoed that you?d want to release?

OR: Right now my focus is on live performance and it takes so much work to; a) get a band really tight and b) to get the arrangements and songs themselves as they should be, that home recording has taken a back seat for me right now. I have a Yamaha MOTIF 8 which I use to sequence and get ideas down quickly. I have an Apple G4 and when I have some more time I will start recording at home.

AAJ: Are you planning to maintain somewhat of an equal physical presence in both countries?

OR: I am very much hoping so-I have strong feelings for both the UK and the US and it would be desirable to have a career in both territories, and eventually in other European countries too.

AAJ: Do you do many solo gigs?

OR: Occasionally I do solo gigs where I sing and play my original songs and covers of other pop tunes. Mainly I play with groups- either my own, or pick-up groups for GB work, or club dates.

AAJ: Tell us where do you see yourself on the musical landscape? Singer/songwriter, prodigious instrumentalist? Jazz/rock/pop? Everything? I know you have no problem style jumping, that's for sure.

OR: I would love to perform, tour and record with the Oli Rockberger Band, as my primary career focus. Playing in this outfit is one of the times when I truly get the opportunity to perform music on my own terms; its my own music, I play with two responsive, brilliant and stimulating players, and I am able to explore my interests as a singer/songwriter, and as an improvising instrumentalist, without having to make a choice between the two sides of my musical character.

The idea behind the music and the band is that singer/songwriting, improvising, group interaction and stretching out are all crucial ingredients in what we do, and in this respect, I have tried to create the ideal environment for my musical skills, which are broadly based, and not specific to one area. I'm in between singer/songwriter, jazz player, and gospel/R&B/funk/pop pianist and in my group, I'm able to be all these things, in what we consider to be one homogenous package. In addition to my work with my own group, I would love to become a first call pianist for pop/rock/folk/R&B/gospel/country studio work. Eventually I would like to teach college level and produce. Songwriting for other artists and collaborating is also something I would like to explore in time.

AAJ: What music holds your most extreme interest these days, and what of it may influence your next project or recording?

OR: Both singer/songwriters and jazz artists. I love Peter Gabriel and want to explore more of his work. I also heard some Vince Mendoza arrangements recently and have to get some of his work too. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and also Oregon interest me as well as Rickie Lee Jones or Michael McDonald. I'm always checking out contemporary gospel and new R&B and pop/rock artists too, in addition to listening to all my old favorites. I think that continuing to explore contemporary music and culture will play a great part in my next project.

AAJ: What's in your CD case at the moment?

OR: I've been listening to this pianist singer/songwriter who was recording in the 90s. His name is Michael Ruff and I really like his music. New Moonshine by James Taylor is also one I've just got hold of and love.

AAJ: Any other musicians you'd like to comment on, or whose playing you particularly respect? Any musicians you would particularly like to work with?

OR: There are so many. Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Pat Metheny, and Maceo Parker are players I would dream about performing on my music someday. I would love to write/perform with artists like Cassandra Wilson or Dianne Reeves, and it would be a dream to play piano on tracks for Sting, James Taylor, or Eric Clapton someday.

There are some artists who I am honored to call friends who have made a big difference to me through their encouragement and support. Chris Laughlin is one of my mentors- the bassist and musical director for Brian McKnight,-super musician and very special person. Saxophonist/singer/songwriter Walter Beasley is a mentor and one of my most influential teachers from Berklee- a consummate performer and artist-? and I learn so much from watching him play and by talking about music with him. These are people I would love to work with in the future

AAJ: To wrap up, please tell us your musical plans, or projects in the pipeline, for 2003 and beyond.

We are hoping to perform at several festivals and big clubs in the UK and Europe this year, which are all promising works in progress. We'll also be traveling to Ecuador several times over the next 6 months through various connections our drummer, Chris Farr, has over there. We hope to record a full record soon and will continue to do everything we can to get out there and be heard by the public. Winning friends, fans and a following is crucial, as is finding the right management and representation. We need to continue working hard and are hoping to have our team assembled in the near future, through getting our music in to the right hands, and by continuing to perform in high-profile settings in the US and in Europe.

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Photo Credit
Suki Cohn

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