Saturday, December 31, 2011

GRAZIE PER TUTTO, ROCCO: The “Final” Interview

It’s hard not to walk into The Blue Whale jazz club in Little Toyko on a late-December evening and not feel a little choked up: there at the brushed-aluminum bar sits Rocco Somazzi in his spiffy leather jacket, sipping lightly on a deep red Spanish wine and scrolling over his everpresent iPad with a private-joke smile on his lips. Last week, he started construction on a new venture that, as we’ve all come to learn somewhat painfully, will not be in Los Angeles.

Yes folks, Rocco has left the building. Or is in the process of leaving. He’s sort of ambigious about it all. He’s still in the final throes of planning his official swan song to Los Angeles, a live New Year’s Eve simulcast from this very club featuring the Grammy-winning L.A. pianist Billy Childs. Rocco and Blue Whale owner Joon Lee plan on around 170 people in the tiny, kabuki-like space. There will be extra tables set up outside on Weller Court and an NPR truck parked on Second Street for the live broadcast. Rocco is planning on jumping behind the grill to prepare the entire multi-course champagne buffet himself. Oh yes, it’s also his birthday on the day of the broadcast. He is not even breaking a sweat.

Since 1998, Rocco has brought powerful and adventurous music to the Big Orange, when he popped up out of nowhere to open his first Rocco club in Bel-Air. He had virtually no experience in either restaurants or music promotion. And he decided to fill the bill of musical fare not with the lush piano jazz or cocktail-lounge fuzak that befitted the spot’s tony environs but with the tempestuous sounds of alt-jazz, edge jazz, improvised jazz, free jazz – and from many artists handpicked from the local underground jazz royalty, including Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia and Billy Higgins. It was bold and ballsy and destined to be a failure. But people still talk about the shows there, the absolute insane effrontery of it all, like a Viking Funeral Ship crashed right into the placid, apple-green hills of monied L.A. They met other refugees from the tired old jazz clubs dotted around the city who hungered for someone (or somewhere) who would give this music the kind of respect afforded it in New York and Europe. They also remember thinking with a secret thrill: This guy is completely nuts.

Rocco's new digs!

Since then, he has jumped his “Rocco in L.A.” imprint to a performance space in a Hollywood theatre complex, the Café Metropol in downtown’s Artists District, the Royal/T Café in Culver City, and many more places around a city that has been – at best – unappreciative and indifferent to his efforts. (He also was once broke and near-homeless, and survived a cancer scare in 2009.) No matter. On the eve of his departure up to the Bay Area for undoubtedly great things, the Swiss-Italian emigré and Philosophy 101 dropout has risen to be arguably the most influential and beloved promoter/booker of creative and improvised music in Los Angeles for the last decade. At least.

If this is at all in dispute, while Rocco gamely shares his wine with the Beast, a gaggle of admiring women approach him. “Ohmigod,” one coos, “I used to go to your old, old place in Bel-Air!” Rocco shows the ladies the floor plan on his iPad -- he might as well have it surgically implanted on his fingertips – pointing out the location for his new co-venture with noted chef Paul Canales, which is set to open (hopefully) in San Francisco in Summer 2012. “It’s at 19th and Telegraph?” ejects a woman named Kathy. “My father owned an Irish bar on Telegaph and 25th! There’s a lot of great architecture down there!” The third woman offers a resigned nod: “The Bay Area has so much more going on than L.A. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”

The fourth woman mourns: “It’s sad to know you are leaving, Rocco.” Rocco responds with a shrug: “I see it more as an expansion than actually leaving.”

THE BEAST: This Billy Childs extravaganza is like your goodbye party, a New Year’s Party and a Birthday party rolled into one. Holy shit!
ROCCO SOMAZZI: Well, I’m doing another event in January, but it’s just a food event with Andrew Zimmer from Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. He’s going to film an episode at the Royal/T. I think the theme is ‘Bizarre Food in Bizarre Places.’ He’s cooking a five-course meal in the kitchen there and it’s a public event, so people can buy tickets. It’s going to be on January 13 of the New Year. Literally the next day I am flying up to the Bay Area on a one-way ticket. But New Years’ Eve is my last music event in L.A. [pause] Wait, that’s not even correct in a way. I have a show I booked here at the Blue Whale in February: It’s going to be Tim Berne, who is releasing a new album on ECM. Then in April, [Brazilian composer] Hermeto Pascoal is playing up in San Francsico, so I’ve been talking to his manager about him doing one date down here.

Power Couple: Rocco and his wife, pianist Motoko Honda
[Photo courtesy of Ganzo]

So wait, I’m confused. You’re still booking music in L.A.?
I guess in my mind I was not even registering that I’m not going to be here, so I started planning stuff. [laughs] My ways of doing things is to get excited and I figure out later how to handle it. Maybe I will do a Skype meeting with the bands or something.

So at least for awhile, you’ll be going back and forth between L.A. and Frisco.
Either I will come back whenever I have an event or find someone to be my double here. I’ve turned down a lot of opportunities to book stuff here, but some – like Pascoal – I just can’t say, “I’m going to be in San Francisco so I can’t do anything down in L.A." I will just have to figure something out.

Speaking of which, what is your advice for “the next Rocco”?
I guess the only advice I have is: “Get ready to get beat up.” It’s not an easy environment. A lot of people come from the mentality that they are trying to create “serious” presentations…Nobody is willing to put their heart and soul in it over the long term. If it doesn’t generate returns or catch on immediately, they will drop it. With me, it is all about just doing it, not about the return or the financial rewards. So my advice would be that even if it seems like nobody cares, even if you are losing time and money and efforts with everything, if you are ready for it, then good; if you are not, I don’t think you can last. It’s hard to find people like that. For me it’s the opposite…I am just so stubborn that I can’t help it!

Trailer from Steve Rudolf's 2009 documentary
The Good Ear featuring Rocco Somazzi

Well, you did last 13 years.
People say to me, “You lasted all these years, you must have been very successful!” and I say, “No, are you kidding?” [laughter] Lots of downs, lots of ups, but for me it is not about “Oh, I am making money now.” It is enough to know that some people appreciate this music, that in my heart I am doing the right thing and what I really believe in. I mean, Joon is just so amazing. He and I share so many traits. He is also so passionate about this music, and for me he is “the next Rocco,” as you say. He is already the next one.

You mentioned that the new place is going to be more of a restaurant and not so much focused on music.
Yes. Unfortunately, now I am a grown-up and I have to follow the business model I just disparaged. [laughs] This project is a serious business; it is not a passion project. All the people involved are very passionate about music, but we know that in order to serve the purpose and present the music, we have to have first and foremost a successful restaurant. The music is not part of the business model for the new space. It’s gonna be something that we do once in awhile, based on a solid business that is sustaining itself. That is something I learned after having my own place and then working at other people’s places – that the restaurant should take care of itself and the music is not something that the rest of it is relying upon. Like my first place in Bel-Air, my primary goal was to create a music venue. The restaurant was attached to it. I put too much emphasis on the music, and that was ultimately what caused the downfall of the place. Unfortunately, I believe L.A. is just not ready yet for something to be sustained like that just on great and adventurous music alone.

So, you’re eventually going to have music in the new spot…
Well, we are actually opening two business next door to each other with two separate entrances, but that are also connected inside. Instead of one big restaurant, we have a smaller one and have this flexible space next door where we'll sell wines and to-go foods. We are building the retail space in a way that everything can be transformed and moved whenever we need to.

You are quite used to those “flexible spaces.” I remember seeing Nels Cline and Scott Amendola at the second Rocco in Hollywood and there was still a giant fishing-boat prop onstage from the theatre company who had the spot during the day.
Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve worked in a lot of flexible spaces. The Royal/T is the ultimate flexible space; it can transform beautifully into all sort of different things. I’ve learned how to redefine the concept of “flexible,” which is to leave it open for different uses, so I know what works and doesn’t, how to set it up right. So first, I want to establish the revenue-generating activities in the flexible space: retail shop, independent coffee shop in morning with just breakfast and good coffee, then change it into a wine shop with tastings and wine classes in the afternoon, and at night maybe eventually we can have the music. The interesting part of the space is that it’s not very big – about 5,000 square feet – but the ceilings are high, so we are building a mezzanine that will connect the two businesses, so you can walk up to the second level and walk back and forth between the restaurant and the retail space and watch the performances.

Clip for "Cookin' It Up" concert at the Royal/T Cafe

Why are you doing this now? Have you been thinking about it for years?
Well, it is an opportunity that I didn’t exactly plan. But last year when we did the "Cooking It Up" event, that was the first time I met Paul Canales, the chef. We had such a great time working together that when he finally left the place he was working [Oliveto] to open his own place, he called me up.

Did you have to think about it?
No, I was ready. [laughs]

I’m trying to think of all the monster players who have left L.A. in the recent years, it's depressing: Nels, James Carney, Danny Grissett, Adam Rudolph, now you – and you’re taking [wife] Motoko [Honda] with you, too!
Yeah. You can add Todd Sickafoose, Ben Wendel, Ambrose [Akinmusire]...It’s funny, I have spent my whole adult life here, and I love L.A. I still don’t sound like an L.A. person, but I feel in my heart that I grew up here. I am still European in many ways, but I had all of the significant experiences of my adult life here. I guess it is a double-edged sword. In L.A., nobody gives a shit about music, generally, so that makes my job harder in a way, but that is the reason why I do what I do.

Are you still going to be involved in the Angel City Jazz Festival?
Yeah, we are booking it right now.

Is there going to be a theme like last year?
We haven’t announced it yet, and it might still change, but the theme right now is: “Respect Innovative Artists and Legends.” The concept is that each concert will feature pairings of innovative artists and the legendary musicians who inspired them.

Like the Alex Cline/Roscoe Mitchell concert you did in October?
Yeah, actually that show was the inspiration for this theme. Again, it might change a little bit. The one band that we have 100-percent confirmation is Myra Melford. We got a grant to present her and she’s chosen Henry Threadgill. Others we’re thinking of are Ambrose Akinmusire with Wayne Shorter, and Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran. But we are just throwing out names. We wanted to get Nels Cline, but he is just too busy, which is too bad, because Jeff had an amazing idea: “Let’s get Nels to play with Jim Hall.” I mean, Nels doesn’t really know Jim Hall personally, but last week Jeff got a text from Nels saying, “I just had lunch with Jim Hall! He lives up the street from me!” But we couldn’t get the dates lined up. That would have been an unbelievable show.

Noize Terrorists: Nels Cline, Tim Berne and Jim Black
at the 2010 Angel City Jazz Fest

The L.A. Times sort of joked that the Bay Area has “stolen you away” from L.A.
In a way, it’s true. I know I’m going to end up doing more stuff there than here. I don’t even know the scene up there well enough to know if I am going to be able to do what I want to do. Maybe there is no need for someone like me up there! My dream is to get more activity going between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I would like to bring more L.A. people up there, and vice versa. I would really like to help be that connection between the two places. There hasn’t been as musch focus in San Francisco on the more edgy jazz that I specialize in. There have been venues that have done things here and there, but like L.A. it's been very fragmented. So we are hoping somewhere down the road to provide a space where we can pull in people from Mills College and Berkeley and create a nice alternative environment. We don't want to compete with places like Yoshi's; we want to have a much more underground vibe, much like the Blue Whale.

So L.A. hasn’t “broken” you…
No no! I still have the core fire that drives me to seek out this music.

It’s still burning in there?
Still burning. Yes.

What do you know now that you didn’t know back in ’98?
Everything! [laughter] I didn’t know anything in 1998! [more laughter] I mean, we will be here all night if I had to list them all!

Okay, how about a look back then: Rocco’s Top Shows* in L.A.?
Well, if you ask me this tomorrow, my answers are going to be completely different. Sometimes it’s not just the music but the circumstances surrounding it. The first one I can think of was the show I most regret not recording. I think it was 2006, the Ben Wendel Group at Barnsdall Art Park. He had just received a grant to compose some new music. Ambrose was on trumpet, Larry Koonse and Darek Oles on bass, Tigran [Hamasyan] on piano, Kevin Kanner on drums and Ben on sax. It was some of the most beautiful interplay I have ever heard. It was one of those concerts where every single note was perfect -- even the silence was perfect. Another one was at the old Rocco in Hollywood; we did Wayne Horvitz’s electric band [Zony Mash], which doesn’t really tour anymore and hasn’t played L.A. in about ten years. We did a multiple-night engagement, and we rented this Hammond B3 [organ] for Wayne. It was the most intense rock-groove-funk-jazz experience! I still have a picture in my mind of Wayne playing that Hammond and using all its effects. It was so emotionally charged.

The opening of Rocco's second club in Hollywood

How about the first space in Bel-Air?
Well, just after my first space and before the second one, I did two shows in downtown L.A. at this abandoned ballroom. We had Erik Friedlander’s [group] Topaz in there. Unbelievable concert, unbelievable. That’s one of the bands I’ve always wanted to get back together, because they really don’t perform together anymore. Then, going back to the Bel-Air era, the famous residency by [Andy Milne’s] Dapp Theory. They did a two-week residency, and it just built up in intensity with each night, and of course the closing night was just amazing. Hands down, the best show when I was at Café Metropol was Satoko Fuji and [her husband] Natsuki Tamura doing a duo. I have a recording of that night that I still listen to; their interaction is so fresh and original. One show that was completely mindblowing was this guitarist Timothy Young and a Russian guitar player [Andre Otraksin]. They were duo called Guitar Monks; they drove from Seattle down to Hollywood and then drove back at the end of the night. I still have their CD, and its was such an inspiring blend of classical-jazz-rock-blues that I felt like I would pass out when I heard that. Like the first time I heard Myra Melford’s Be Bread CD.

Satoko Fuji and Natsuki Tamura, live from Cafe Metropol

May we allow you to leave behind – besides your legacy, that is – some names of local players to watch in 2012?
Before I name them, I have to think: 'Wait, did they move to New York already?’ [laughter] Well, for sure the guitar player I just mentioned, Tim Young. I think he is one of the five best guitar players in the world – and he actually moved to L.A. Another that comes to mind is Slumgum, but somehow I feel I’ve over-presented them in a way, but that’s just because I find their music so inventive and revealing. Cal Arts has a lot of good new people. There’s this trumpet player name Brandon Sherman who I think is doing great things; he has a band called Chord Four. Daniel Rosenbloom, of course, who I’ve done a number of shows with. But there are people playing now at the Blue Whale who I don’t even know – and they are amazing.

That’s a good sign, right?
I think so!

You may not be rich, Rocco, but you’re already prosperous. Now live long.
Gary Fukushima, L.A. Jazz Collective


1 comment:

  1. I don't get out as much as I want/ought, but that Steuart Liebig big 50 bash was pretty amazing. Wish I could hear the tapes of it. Sorry to see Rocco go.