Alumni Profile: Oli Rockberger '04

A Pull to Return Home
By 

Oli Rockberger. Visit olirockberger.com

When he returned to his native London, England, in July 2016, Oli Rockberger ’04 completed the roundtrip that began with his arrival at Berklee in 1999. He brought home with him a greatly enhanced musical toolkit built up by study, playing with some of his musical idols, and creating a discography of his own albums and many records which he played on and produced for various artists. After his sojourn—six years in Boston and a decade in New York—Rockberger knew it was the right time to make his move.

“I was feeling a pull back to home, friends, and family, but I didn’t want to take that plunge at the expense of the musical growth and relationships I’d made in New York,” Rockberger said in a phone call from London. “I wanted to be sure I’d still be able to go across the pond and work with those people. Getting U.S. citizenship two years ago was huge for me. It meant that I could easily travel back and forth to work with my friends in the U.S.”

Being a gifted pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and producer, it’s taken Rockberger little time to establish himself in the London music scene. That was helped by the visibility he gained by joining the band of Laura Mvula, a popular British singer/songwriter. Mvula has a large audience for her often-confessional songs that showcase her soulful vocals against a blend of pop, r&b, jazz, and African influences. Given Rockberger’s musical proclivities, he was a perfect choice for her group.

Rockberger grew up in Finchley, a suburb of London, and albums in his mother’s record collection by Stevie Wonder, Oscar Peterson, the Crusaders, and others made a deep impression on him. “I remember hearing Steely Dan and Anita Baker on Jazz FM on the car radio on my way to school as a boy,” Rockberger recalls. “That music really got inside me and was massively influential. I played piano from a very early age. My parents recognized in me a very strong interest in music and took me to lots of concerts. I remember going to see Keith Jarrett; that was tremendously moving and inspiring.”

Rockberger was attracted to the lyricism in the music of Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, and Oscar Peterson. “At that age I was really interested in melody and the song aspect,” he says. “It wasn’t until later that I checked out the soloing. In my teens I was increasingly drawn to songwriting and got into Sting and James Taylor. When I came to the States, things changed again as I got into other styles of music.”

At Berklee, Rockberger sought to develop the skills of a sideman playing soul, r&b, and gospel music. “At Berklee I realized that as an instrumentalist there was a path for me like that of [keyboardists] Don Grolnick or Greg Phillinganes who weren’t straight-up jazz guys but weren’t just pop players either,” he says. “There was a kind of music in the cracks—intelligent pop— that had jazz and soul underpinning with vocals that felt natural for me to pursue.”

A few years after graduating, Rockberger decided to move to New York when many of his musical peers from Berklee started migrating there. “It was the logical place for me to go,” he relates. “I wasn’t ready to return to London, there was another chapter of my musical life that I needed to continue pursuing in the United States. New York wasn’t such a cold place because I knew so many people there. I had a lot of people to play with—Marlon Saunders ’87, Jordan Perlson ’04 John Shannon ’04, and others.”

His gigs at New York City jazz clubs led to connections with well established players. “I was playing a gig at the 55 Bar with saxophonist Ada Rovatti, who is Randy Brecker’s wife,” Rockberger says, “and Randy sat in with us. Shortly afterwards he asked me to join his band and to contribute some songs.” An offer to play a Brecker Brothers reunion gig at the Blue Note followed. The lineup featured Mike Stern ’75, Will Lee, George Witty, and Dave Weckl. Rockberger ended up playing, singing, and creating vocal arrangements for the trumpeter’s Brecker Brothers Band Reunion album.

Subsequently, Will Lee invited Rockberger to play with his group in Japan for two weeks. Among the players in Lee’s touring band was legendary drummer Steve Gadd.

“Getting to play with all of these guys changed me,” Rockberger reveals. “But working with Steve was the biggest thrill of my life because he had played on all the records I grew up listening to.” Opportunities to play with Steve Jordan, Jesse Harris, Nathan East, Chris Dave and the Drumhedz, and many more followed. As well, he worked in the studio with rising songwriters Cariad Harmon, Becca Stevens, and others.

Rockberger shares that the musical opportunities he got during his time in New York surpassed his wildest dreams. His catalog of original music is documented in three albums he recorded with his experimental project Mister Barrington, and four solo albums. The first two date from his Boston days, while Old Habits and Sovereign were recorded in New York. Sovereign will be released on Michael Janisch’s London-based Whirlwind Recordings in September. Jazz FM gave lots of airplay to Old Habits resulting in bookings for Rockberger’s band at Love Supreme and the London Jazz festival. He hopes Sovereign is greeted with a similar reception.

Rockberger is currently cowriting and producing for various British artists while working the schedule around his primary gig with Mvula. Her performances in America have enabled Rockberger to stay connected with his friends in the States.

“Since I’ve moved back here, I feel like the world has become an even smaller place and I’m happy with how things are playing out,” he says. “My solo and sideman careers are continuing as are my writing and producing. A music career is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. My solo career is also an advertisement for other work in the studio. They feed each other.”