Here in Barcelona, sometimes it feels difficult to find a gig that doesn’t feature Oriol Roca. A slight exaggeration but he does take the ubiquity prize, whether it’s Giulia Valle’s latest genre-crossing project, Líbera, or the humorous gymnastics of the Piccola Gagarin Orchestra, or the charts+improv of the the David Mengual Free Spirits Big Band, or the leaderless spontaneity of the MUT Trio… the list is almost endless but what it all has in common is Roca’s agile and subtly surprising approach to drums and percussion. In his own words…
1. What was the first music you ever bought, and the most recent?
I cannot remember the first album I bought, but it must have been when I was around 13 years old. I was taking drum lessons and one day my teacher gave me a mixtape with what at that time felt like a kind of bible. That tape included music from John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Weather Report, Billy Cobham, and some other jazz-rock oriented music. All those names opened up a new world to me, so I started buying random albums just because they would appear on the covers ending up with good and crappy music on my hands. I do remember that one of the first albums was Pat Metheny’s “Offramp” (three months ago I found it on vinyl and I had to buy it again), and that I would only listen to two tracks, the others sounded too weird to me. I remember thinking that music was somehow codified, that I had to dig more into it in order to fully discover it, and that I had all my life to do it. That is a very precious, exciting and unrepeatable feeling that sadly fades away, but is what hooked me into music.
Two weeks ago I bought some vinyl by Jaco Pastorius and Xavier Cugat at a second-hand record store at Mercantinc, an antique fair on the outskirts of Sant Cugat del Vallès. I try to avoid going there because I always end up spending money that I don’t have, but we play monthly next door with the David Mengual Free Spirits Big Band and I do end up visiting the shop too often.
2. What’s the balance of preparation vs. improvisation for the average recording?
I like to keep the music as fresh as possible for a recording, but finding the balance is not always easy because music is made with other people, and everybody has different needs when facing a recording session, and we all have to deal with that and adjust ourselves to make the best out it.
I have a bit of a problem with too-much-pre-fixed ideas, I prefer to arrive at a recording session with the minimum information needed, knowing the structures, the vibe of each piece, having worked the specific passages that music demands, but not much more than that because I don’t like the feeling of playing “by memory”, trying to virtually recreate some “magic moments” from a previous situation. I believe music only happens on the spot, when you inspire and get inspired by the others you play with. And to get this inspiration you have to keep yourself in a creative state, so I try to feed my spirit as much as I can.
3. Who is the most inspiring person you’ve collaborated with, and why?
I couldn’t name only one, but certainly some musicians from the Belgian scene have influenced me a lot. I lived in The Netherlands from 2001 until 2006 during my studies at the conservatory, and a lot of my colleagues moved down to Brussels after our studies. Through these years, being part of projects with people based in Brussels (a duo with pianist Giovanni di Domenico, a quintet with Italian double bass player Manolo Cabras and vocalist Lynn Cassiers “Basic Borg”, and other musical collaborations) I got to meet some outstanding musicians like pianist Eric Vermeulen, drummer Marek Patrman or saxophonist Jeroen Van Herzeele, just to name a few. Having the opportunity to share music with them has been a gift. They are an example of sincerity, no concessions, and truthfulness every time they play a note. Also in my hometown, Barcelona, sharing music with double bass player David Mengual or guitarist/improviser Paolo Angeli is a continuous source of inspiration.
4. What are you most proud of?
Of not accommodating by continuously seeking a certain instability in music. That keeps me alive.
5. What do you think of the music scene in Barcelona compared to elsewhere?
In the mid-90s, Barcelona’s jazz scene got strongly influenced by American jazz players, probably because pioneers like drummer Jorge Rossy (I believe he’s a central figure in the story) moved to the United States to study (trumpet!) and in the blink of an eye people like Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Bill McHenry and this generation of musicians were often playing in the city, setting a New York-Barcelona connection, helped out by the label Fresh Sound New Talent that documented those years on some very good albums. Once the connection was settled many other musicians spent time in New York and that contributed to tightening this relationship. All the musicians of my generation would attend those concerts, and they left a strong mark on Barcelona’s jazz scene during the following years.
But something was missing on the scene during these years: it seems to me that while Barcelona was facing west, meanwhile in the backyard (Europe) a lot of stuff was going on, but it didn’t really arrive here until not so long ago. Only a few musicians like pianist Agustí Fernández seemed to be connected to the European free jazz scene, collaborating with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey or Marilyn Crispell.
In the last couple of years Barcelona’s scene has opened up a lot of different musical directions. A new generation of musicians (some of them have spent time in other latitudes as well) are creating a very rich and exciting improv/free scene that was really missing until now, compared to other European (allegedly) culturally active cities. New independent labels like Discordian Records or Underpool are of great value, allowing a lot of new music to be released each year and helping it to find a spot in a city that doesn’t take live music seriously yet.
The lack of places for live music is maybe the biggest problem in Barcelona, and municipal laws seem to be against it or – at least – make it very difficult. Beside the insufficient number of music venues, I also believe that this whole improv scene has to be ‘normalised’ in the eyes of programmers and music festivals. It exists, it’s here, every day a number of musicians gather for session, at small venues like Robadors 23, Soda, Sala Fènix, and slowly it can be found in other less underground situations -which is good – but it is still regarded suspiciously, as if it weren’t meant for a bigger audience, condemned to be played only in small cafés where musicians go and play just for tips. This music deserves more opportunities and until then Barcelona is condemned to be a provincial city, far from that cultural reference city it has always dreamed of becoming.
6. Where do you stand on the streaming/downloading/file-sharing/musicians-not-getting-paid-for-their-music debate?
The impact of the internet on music was such a big door that got opened that I still can’t see the consequences of it. Obviously it had very positive effects as a never-ending source of information. But as a musician, if Video killed the radio star, the digital era will finish the job. I’m pretty worried about what seems to be the way teenagers consume music, just by streaming videos on YouTube, not even the whole song! They just skip to the part they like and after a few days a new song takes over, and so on. In thge mid to short term I find it unsustainable for musicians to keep on releasing albums if almost nobody is buying in this digital madness. I still buy records, mostly old vinyl because I like the physical object. I grew up in the Walkman era, when you had to save money and then go to the record store to buy that desired and long-awaited album. This must sound silly now for a youngster, saving money for weeks to then walk to a record store and buy a whole album? A record store, what’s that?
I only bought one digital album in my life, and it was Paul Bley’s “Ballad” from 1967, so I’m not myself supporting this new way of distributing music too much. I also buy some albums once in a while after a concert, which seems to be the only way to sell them nowadays for bands. I used to buy a lot of music, mine and previous generations’; we all have a lot of records at home that have a story behind them. Just pick one and probably you will travel back to the moment you bought it, when you discovered that music. It’s hard to believe that such thing can actually happen with an mp3 folder downloaded from the internet, even if it has a jpg cover on it.
It is very expensive to produce an album. As musicians we invest money in a lot of albums we record, but we end up not getting back that investment. We do it because we want/need to play (and maybe make a living out of it), and if we want to play we better be presenting a new album, otherwise it’s difficult getting booked to play at a club or festival. So if future generations seem not to be buying albums anymore, how long can we keep on releasing music? Maybe vinyl, as some say, will captivate again future generations. I hope they’re right.
7. If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?
A trio with Paul Bley and Charlie Haden would do. On tour for thirty years. How cool is that?!
As a brief selection/introduction, the following recordings of Oriol’s music are available…
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