Despite hailing from London, pianist and songwriter Oli Rockberger remains an under-appreciated name in the UK. Since graduating from the Berklee School of Music, he has been a powerful presence on the New York music scene and beyond, playing with some major names in jazz (Les McCann and Randy Brecker among them) as well as bringing his intuitive playing to very different contexts with the likes of Common and Levon Helm.
Rockberger is an exceedingly gifted musician with effortless feel and a joyful adaptability that enables him to work in a wide range of musical landscapes. Perhaps his most adventurous current role is as one third of the hard grooving band Mr Barrington, with their curious, challenging hybrid of interstellar soul, electronica and improvisation.
Old Habits, Rockberger’s second album, should raise his UK profile significantly. It sounds every bit as flexible, open-minded and accessible as his musical CV might suggest, benefiting from some big hearted melodic hooks and some righteously groovy playing. It is produced with commendable clarity and creativity, but it retains a powerful and amiable band vibe that imbues the music with a welcome intimacy and warmth.
Rockberger cites Stevie Wonder and Keith Jarrett as his major influences. Shades of the latter can be heard in some of the gospel-infused flourishes that characterise his piano playing (particularly on the title track) and Rockberger shares a depth and sophistication in harmony with Wonder (the occasionally unpredictable changes on the closing My Home stand out). The harmonica solo on Two Feet is also a page taken directly from the Wonder textbook. The best songs here, particularly the limber, nuanced Queen Of Evasion, also share some of the fusing of the best of pop and jazz found in the music of Steely Dan.
Yet the musical reference point that seems to linger most is Peter Gabriel, to whom Rockberger bears an uncanny vocal resemblance. Gabriel’s approach to music is more organised and meticulous – and it is unlikely that he would ever sound quite this jazz-inflected or spiritual (Never Grow Old even hints at the melody of My Favourite Things), but there is definitely a similarity in tone and depth of feeling. Perhaps the dense atmospheres of the second Bon Iver album might also have informed a couple of the pieces here (Don’t Forget Me and the lovely Over The Bridge particularly).
At 37 minutes, Old Habits is a concise statement that packs considerable evidence of Rockberger’s versatile talents into a short space of time. There are some carefully constructed moods, and Rockberger allows himself space for some eloquent improvising. This is definitely pop music at its most creative – with a variety of textures and dynamics. It veers from the exuberance of newfound freedom (the closing moments of Live A Lie) to the melancholy and thoughtful (Don’t Forget Me).
Lyrically, this seems like personal and earnest storytelling, an impression bolstered by the serious looking black and white profile photograph of Rockberger on the cover. At times, the platitudes are laid on a little heavily (‘a man’s got to stand on his own two feet’) and the deployment of a child’s choir on Never Grow Old is both an obvious device and an inevitably divisive gesture. But Rockberger’s intuitive musicality is captivating, and his understanding of a wide range of forms is impressive. There is a sensitivity and natural communication in both his playing and his vocal delivery.