The first thing that I find incredible about Rocco Somazzi is just how un-incredible he seems when you first meet him. No visibly frazzled nerves. None of the obsessive phone checking that many busy people show. No toe-tapping. No yawning. Nothing that reveals how much he has going on in his life. Just a slight smile.
When I meet with Rocco he tells me about his day job managing Royal T, a storefront that he defines as a “collisional” combination of art space, retail store, tea shop, and cosplay party venue. Without missing a beat he then casually mentions that he just happened to “jump in” to the kitchen of a jazz club in downtown LA last night where he worked until morning as a replacement for a Korean chef.
While calm describes Rocco’s demeanor, collisional is the best word to describe the story he tells me.
Arriving from Geneva where he completed university, Rocco and his European understanding of city life crashed into the urban sprawl of Southern California. While he was ready to start a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of California, no amount of research had prepared him for Riverside.
I looked up the statistical information and said, “Ah, it’s similar to Geneva! Same population. Same area size. Geneva is a really nice city, so it’s going to be a nice city.” When I arrived there I remember that I spent quite some time looking for the city. I couldn’t find it. I kept driving around thinking maybe I am just in the suburbs, but the fact is there is no city. It is all so spread out and empty compared to what you’re used to as a city in Europe.
Rocco eventually traded in graduate study in Riverside for film courses at Los Angeles Community College, but even in the middle of the city, Rocco still found LA to be somewhat “empty”
LA has been kind of like a cultural desert at least for music. LA is a very commercial city
Missing the restaurants he frequented back in Switzerland, places where he could drink wine and listen to great music, Rocco came to a solution that most people wouldn’t even dream of: buy a restaurant space and turn it into the type of place he missed.
I created a different environment where creative expression was the most important aspect of the performance. i encouraged the musicians to play at the maximum of their ability. In many places they have to play quietly otherwise people complain.
The restaurant in Bel-Air was a huge success, but success seems to put Rocco on the hunt for a new challenge.
I like changing things. I feel maybe that relates to the way I think as an improvisational musician. I feel like it’s so easy when you do something for too long to be stuck in autopilot mode, so I always like changing and challenging the way I do things.
Closing his restaurant, Rocco jumped into his next project. Angel City Jazz Festival has featured great artists such as Nels Cline, Elliott Sharp and Ravi Coltrane. As LA’s first non-commercial jazz festival, Angel City is not a traditional jazz event.
We call it a jazz festival, but it’s actually not a jazz festival, At least for me. It doesn’t really make sense to the general population to say an improvised music festival, so you know it’s tough, that’s one of the challenges… Some of our presentations can be string quartets and others have like five electric guitars and drums. They don’t sound anything alike.
So where is Rocco now? What is he colliding into next? Running his jazz festival, moving up the coast to northern California, Rocco continues to approach life the same way he approaches music.
That’s the great thing about improvisation: when you hear it, if somebody is really good at it, you can’t imagine it any other way … You don’t want to change a note. You can’t imagine the improvisation going in any other direction, but before you heard it you never would have expected it to go that way. So there’s something very exciting about it
Where Rocco will be years after this interview I don’t know. I am sure, however, that I’ll be listening for his next improvisation.