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?