CD Review: Oli Rockberger – Old Habits

Oli Rockberger – Old Habits
(Olu Road Records. CD Review by Matthew Wright)

Since winning a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in 1999, Londoner Oli Rockberger has been building a career of kaleidoscopic talent to support, in a range of senses, his solo career. He’s a highly regarded keys sideman and singer with some of the most interesting acts around, from jazz (Les McCann and Charlie Hunter), rock (Levon Helm and Jackie DeShannon), and hip-hop (Common and Queen Latifah).

The musicians Rockberger lists as major influences – Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett and James Brown – give further evidence of his eclecticism. Perhaps the most telling guide to Rockberger’s musical character is his collaborations with the versatile – and very distinguished – Randy Brecker and Jesse Harris. Like Rockberger, they range across the boundaries of jazz/rock/folk/pop, collecting musical ideas that they blend into an idiom all of their own.

He’s also the keyboard player in the electronic trio Mister Barrington, and in his remaining time, writes, produces and arranges. The range of Rockberger’s playing all comes through in his solo work. He’s been gradually building a solo career in New York – his first solo album Hush Now was well received in 2005 – alongside other projects. It’s not surprising, given the extent of his commitments elsewhere that this second album, Old Habits, released on Oli Road Records has been some time coming.

Old Habits escapes easy categorisation, as you’d expect from an artist of his pedigree.  Rockberger occupies a fertile crossover space in which the emotional directness of pop, the compelling rhythms of R&B, and the wit and fresh instrumental juxtapositions of jazz combine into a deceptively complex and tantalising experience. There are enjoyable, lyrical balladic melodies aplenty, but there are also darker layers to discover beneath.

Rockberger’s tenor voice, light but with a soft rasp, suggesting both sensitivity and distress, is the perfect vehicle for his wittily wistful lyrics. There’s lovely allusive wordplay in ‘Queen of Evasion’ and ‘Never Grow Old’ in which rhymes on the key words ‘evasion’ and ‘old’ echo through the song. ‘Never Grow Old’ features a children’s choir singing ‘never grow up/old’, in a simple, but poignant juxtaposition.

It takes several hearings to appreciate the subtlety and intelligence of Rockberger’s arrangements. His instrumentation is sophisticated, inventive and eclectic: in addition to the usual bass, guitar and drums, Rockberger uses a wide range of brass, strings, harmonica, hammond organ, and children’s choir across the album’s ten tracks, lending a rich and fascinating sonic texture to each track.

The exotic instrumentation is always used sensitively. ‘Two Feet’, about masculine independence, uses the harmonica, with its quintessentially plain-spoken masculinity, that could be nostalgic for the simple country life, or a critique of a kind of masculine failure to commit? The title track, ‘Old Habits Die Hard’, in which Rockberger plays Hammond organ, is about a man excusing his past behaviour. The Hammond lends a delicious veneer of showmanship which perfectly conjures a portrait of a character who seems to be partly, but not wholly, an indulgent self-dramatist.

There’s no shortage of jazz-tinged pop on the airwaves, promising something different, but delivering an over-familiar ballad formula, in which the lightest of jazz flavourings is like the sprig of parsley on a gristly slab of meat. Rockberger, though always enjoyable, is a much more original proposition. The gentle trajectory of his solo career has allowed him to steep his talent in a fruitful range of mature musical personalities, without the pressure to record until he’s ready. This album is worth the wait: lyrical, melancholic, and for the most part exquisitely crafted, it’s a monument to be relished in the border territory of jazz and pop.

Oli will be playing at Pizza Express Dean St. on the 27th March 2013. Book tickets HERE

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3 replies »

  1. Harmonica or Melodica? I have a feeling Oli might have been playing his melodica on this album?.. Just a hunch?

  2. Awesome. I just wanted to make sure as it is an easy mistake to make. Also, having seen Oli play the melodica on some of the live versions it just made me wonder. Thanks

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