Stefano Rocco: ‘I keep the doors open when I compose’

I first heard of Sydney-based guitarist Stefano Rocco — who came to Australia from Italy via the United Kingdom — during the pandemic; it was a bleak period, as some of you might remember, but it was also a time when art and music gave us the ray of light, and the sense of connection, that we mostly needed. Stefano’s music did just that; his album A New Night, A New Day is a perfect demonstration of his humanistic approach to jazz, creating soothing and heartwarming soundscapes; more importantly, the album tells a very specific story, the experience of moving through the night into the morning. I have been looking for an opportunity to interview him about all this, and his shows in Canberra and Melbourne are coming at the perfect time.

What would you say to a total stranger to invite them to your gigs?

Going to a live concert for me is one of the best ways to find out about some new music, therefore I would love to invite anyone who is keen and curious to listen. I put a lot of thought into the writing process and we have a good chemistry as a band, people can expect to hear some original music played with the heart.

How would you describe your sound?

I try to keep a good balance between composition and improvisation and I often spend a good amount of time figuring out the structure of the song, so that there is always something happening.

I believe the melody is one of the most important things and I want it to always be significant. When I think the composition has reached a good level of complexity without sounding pretentious, then I am happy.

The jazz influences are prominent in this quartet project and our sound is the classic jazz piano-guitar quartet, but for me there is more than just labelling the music with a word: I keep the doors open when I compose and I like to be influenced by different styles, I hope that comes through in our recordings and in our live performances.

How and when did you find your voice as an artist?

It’s difficult to say ‘when’ because I think that finding ‘your own voice’ as an artist is a continuous work in progress. If one day I will feel like I have reached this level, then I will probably start changing things around! In terms of ‘how’, I think through listening to many artists I love, through valuable feedback I received from teachers and experienced musicians and by focusing on things I wanted to achieve. I started following a path and having some direction, although it’s never a straight line and I am not entirely sure how things are going to evolve. In some ways that’s interesting because I don’t fully know what’s coming next.

Your album A New Night, A New Day is like a soundtrack for an unmade movie, a musical impression of one night’s events unfolding. Why did you decide on this approach?

I find the combination of music and images very powerful and I love when that happens in movies, or in program music. I decided on this approach because I liked the idea of having a common thread connecting all the compositions, a main idea that guided me through the writing process. It is at the same time a source of inspiration and a challenge, as I have to try to stick to the main topic. When I wrote A New Night, A New Day the two main ideas were the opposite concepts, like light and dark; I found it to be a good metaphor for life.

What has your musical journey been like so far?

My musical journey has been quite long, as I started playing when I was very young. Some of the greatest challenges were learning new styles and musical languages, I found that the process of learning improvisation and also writing music was something that was worth spending a lot of time on and I continue to do so. Other main challenges I had to face were relocating in different countries and being a band leader, it has taught me about decision making and at the same time that it is important to give the other band members some space.

Why did you relocate to Australia?

I relocated to Australia because my partner is from Sydney, therefore when I finished my studies in London, I joined her here to be together. Things went well, so I stayed!

What did you find in the Sydney music scene that you would never find in Europe?

In many ways I find it similar to Europe: there are a lot of amazing musicians here and I love the fact that a lot of them are really cool people and that they are easy going!

Who are your heroes?

Music wise I have way too many heros, probably because I like a lot of different music styles. Since in the last 15 years I have been listening to a lot of jazz, I find musicians like Barry Harris and Pat Metheny, despite being very different from each other, are great examples of musicians that inspire me a lot.

How did you get into jazz?

Improvisation has always been an area that I wanted to explore and find out about, as well as understanding more about the harmonic side of compositions. I was into fusion before I really started to love jazz. I used to listen to Weather Report, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, Robben Ford and many more. From there it felt like I had to do some reverse engineering to understand more about it. I started listening to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Joe Pass and many others. Then I started studying a BA Jazz in London and a friend of mine mentioned Barry Harris. Although I never had the chance of meeting him in person, I started studying his ‘method’ and I had lessons with some musicians who studied with him. That was very valuable to me because his approach made me understand a lot more about jazz.

What does jazz mean to you?

A lot of people refer to jazz as a language and that’s very true — as a musician I find that the more I learn about this language the more freedom of expression I have. As a listener, I love jazz because it can be quirky, sentimental, laid back and funny, but also profound. It’s like watching a Woody Allen movie, jazz is the perfect soundtrack for it.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Since I recently became a father and in memory of my dad, who passed away in 2020, I’ll have to go with ‘Song for my father’ by Horace Silver.

The Stefano Rocco Quartet performs at Smith’s Alternative in Canberra on Tuesday 17 January and at the Brunswick Green in Melbourne on Wednesday 18 January