Interview / Preview: Oli Rockberger at Pizza Express Dean Street. 18 November (EFG London Jazz Festival)

Matthew Wright spoke to Oli Rockberger about his influences, his projects, what makes him tick, and his gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club on 18th November (EFG London Jazz Festival, link to tickets at bottom)

Matthew Wright: You’ve had a warm reception for ‘Old Habits’ (Jazz FM’s album of the week back in February) What sort of sound were you aiming for, and why do you think it’s proved so popular?

Oli Rockberger: My Co-Producer Chris Abell and I really wanted to create something organic in quality which left listeners with an overriding feeling of warmth in the writing, singing, playing, arrangement and overall production quality.

I think that it's this feeling which would make someone take the time to sit with the album, and hopefully form a personal connection to the songs.

MW: You’ve had a busy year, performing (and in some cases recording/writing) with Randy Brecker, Will Lee, Gloria Gaynor, James Maddock, Garland Jeffreys and Chris Dave (featured on a track alongside Robert Glasper). What draws you to them, in particular?

OR: My goal has always been to try and build a career where other artists I admire begin to come to me for a particular thing that I do, and however you'd characterize that thing, it's a quality which can work in different musical settings like the ones you mentioned above. So, even if quite diverse stylistically at first glance, there are common threads between them - the main one being a mutual feeling in each case that there was something complimentary that I could bring to their music. I love working collaboratively with great artists who bring out different aspects of what I do.

MW: How difficult is it to maintain focus when you are performing with so many different artists, in so many different styles?

OR: I think that one of the challenging aspects for a musician in my shoes is the time management side when dividing attention between working as a sideman, a solo artist and a band member, where the focus is continually shifting. So I do the best I can to keep everything going and will adapt depending on what I have coming up. From a musical standpoint, I enjoy the variation because the various things that I do intersect and overlap in different ways and I feel really fortunate to have this rich variety.

MW: How do you find time to write and perform your own material with such a busy schedule?

OR: As far as my solo material goes, I make it a priority to write and perform my own work as/when schedule allows. It's not only a really important part of my career as a whole, but also for my spiritual well being; to maintain that individual creative outlet, which represents the sum of my musical parts. I've learned that deadlines are often the best motivator, so I will often book something and use it as an opportunity to write and test out new material.

MW: Do you have a favourite style or performer?

OR: I can't point to any one style or performer. I have long-time favorites/influences of course and some more recent ones from the last few years, but what I listen to at any moment also changes depending on my mood and interest at that particular time. I think that when folks listen to "Old Habits", they may form some ideas of their own as to who some of  those long- standing and more recent favorites might be and I'm always interested to hear those thoughts!

MW: Is ‘versatile’ a compliment for musicians?

OR: Lol....great question.....and not one with a quick answer!

At the risk of paralyzing any of you on the precipice of giving a musician a compliment in this direction, the truth is that it totally depends on the individual musician and specific context as to whether "versatile" is interpreted as a compliment or not.

I think that "versatility" speaks to a specific skill which a musician may or may not possess (or even want to possess); to adapt their particular talent to different musical situations.

Some musicians pride themselves on focusing on one thing exclusively, so to call such a musician "versatile" could be interpreted as a misunderstanding of what they represent.

However, a musician who prides him or her self on being able to bring their musical skills to different situations will most likely take it as a compliment, but only if they also feel that you are acknowledging that they possess musical individuality in tandem with their versatility.

I think that people sometimes confuse versatility as being synonymous with uniformity, but the two are very different, as demonstrated by the great recording session playing masters whose great artistry was that intersection of tremendous versatility combined with intense individual musical personality.  I strive to follow in those footsteps, so for me, it would be a compliment.

So at least now, if any of you ever receive or have received a perplexingly volatile reaction from a well-meaning attempt to compliment a "versatile" ( and sensitive) musician, at least you'll now know why!

MW: One intriguing feature of ‘Old Habits’ is the range of instrumentation, including strings, brass, harmonica, organ a children’s choir. What is the attraction of such diversity?

OR: Hopefully this kind of instrumental diversity brings an added sonic richness and depth to the album.  It's one way to heighten the individual character of a song whilst also hopefully creating a record with variation.

MW: Did you have any particular old habits in mind when you wrote the album?

OR: Ha ha...that would be telling wouldn't it?! No seriously....I think "Old Habits" really speaks to the general idea of gradually leave behind difficulties of the past, to enjoy the present, and to build a future.

MW: What are you performing at the EFG London Jazz Festival?

OR: I'll be performing some brand new songs, as well as songs from "Old Habits", joined by a wonderful line up in Michael Janisch (bass), Femi Temowo (guit/vox), Chris Farr (drums) + special guests Paul Booth (sax) and Ryan Quigley (tpt). It's also my solo début at "The London Jazz Festival", so it will be a really special night - hope you can join us!

MW: You still visit UK regularly to perform, despite living in US for over ten years. What’s it like to be back in London? Does New York feel like home now?

OR: It's always a thrill for me to come back to perform in my hometown  I always enjoy being back in London, seeing friends and family, and visiting all of my favourite haunts. Both London and NY are now home to me in different ways, and it's wonderful to have the chance to develop my career on both sides of the pond.

Matthew Wright: Do you have any new projects you can share with us?

Oli Rockberger: Zach Danziger, Owen Biddle and I are currently working on a new "Mister Barrington" album which I'm really excited about. Zach is also working on a new solo project which Owen and I are involved with too. Meanwhile I'm also writing songs for my next solo album which I'd like to get moving with in '14.

Tickets to Pizza Express Jazz Club, EFG London Jazz Festival, on the 18th November HERE

Artist Website:

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