Sound or Space: an Interview with Oscar Rossignoli

"It’s always intimidating to sit there with this big piece of metal and wood and have to connect with it and create a whole world."

Oscar Rossignoli is the musician New Orleans’ downtown scene didn’t know it needed. No other pianist in the city can currently boast the level of chops or the improvisational acumen that have become the keyboard phenom’s calling cards. Trained at conservatories in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Rossignoli started to dabble in non-classical forms in high school. But it wasn’t until he landed stateside to study at the LSU School of Music that his jazz education began in earnest. He was technically enrolled as a classical piano performance student, but on weekends, he’d drive from Baton Rouge to play on Frenchmen Street. After finishing his BFA, he settled in New Orleans permanently and immersed himself in the scene. He quickly landed prized weekly gigs around town, most notably as a mainstay in Pat Casey’s legendary Sunday jam at The Spotted Cat.

Rossignoli has played on a breathtaking number of New Orleans records in his relatively short time within city limits. He’s worked as a sideman for most of the scene’s staples by now and proven his own creative capabilities as one third of Extended Trio, which also features Matt Booth on bass and Brad Webb on drums. With Inertia, a record written, recorded, produced, and released by Rossignoli himself—with the help of the good folks at Esplanade Studios—he’s more than earned the right to add soloist to his resume.

When I called Rossignoli the week after Inertia dropped, I caught him in high spirits, basking in the positive radiation from his outstanding solo debut. We talked about the return of party buses, developing harmony through groove, Chick Corea, and the New Orleans–Honduras cultural exchange.

How’s New Orleans right now?

Honestly, it feels very normal, which to me is creepy. Remember the party buses? I saw one on Frenchmen this weekend. I was like, “Wow, people are really doing that again.” People here… They don’t care.

That must be good for you gigwise, at least.

Yeah, it’s crazy. We’re back. What’s happening now is that everyone is worn out because we weren’t used to playing these three-hour gigs. Everybody’s out of shape, and suddenly we have two gigs a day. So we’re all like, “Man, I’m tired—my hands, my lips…” We’re still trying to get into the rhythm of things.

Where have you been playing mostly?

Almost all my regular gigs came back: Windsor Court Hotel every Friday and Saturday, Sundays at The Spotted Cat with Pat Casey, and this new gig I’ve been doing since November at Elysian Bar [pictured]. It’s beautiful there.

This city is always keeping me busy. We have a third Extended Trio album coming up later this year, and we can’t wait! We’ve been tweaking everything we can control. We also did a collaboration with Brad Walker: a movie we made of a live concert at Esplanade Studios. We recorded it when there was no hint of whether live music would come back soon, so we were getting ready to record long sets to sell to festivals around the world. And when it came back, we were like, “What do we do with this now?” We ended up screening the concert as a documentary at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Have you been playing on anyone else’s recordings?

I was on Joe Dyson’s debut album, which was a big thing. Everybody’s been waiting for that. It was recorded three years ago, but it’s new to everyone else. And I’m always with John Boutté. We’re planning on coming back to our weekly d.b.a. performance, which everybody’s waiting on.

Let’s talk about the making of Inertia. It’s your first solo album, right?

It’s my first solo album, and also my first album as a leader. Extended is really a collaboration between the three of us [Rossignoli, Webb, and Booth], so this is the first one that’s all me. I produced it and I’m behind everything.

What made you decide to make a solo record?

It was one of my first dreams. The solo piano format is so iconic in both worlds I navigate: In classical, you have someone like [Vladimir] Horowitz; but in jazz, too, you have people like Keith Jarrett who made solo piano a thing. This project has been in my mind and on my wishlist for many, many, many years. It was only natural for me to do it at this point.

How was the experience different from what you’re used to doing?

The challenge was to be very clear. You are everything. You have to cover every aspect of the music, either by playing it or by not playing it. You either play with the sound or with the spaces, the silences. You have to navigate that to be able to convey a groove, but also a melody, and also an accompaniment. To have all these elements well balanced, I’m constantly like, “Is my left hand too loud? Do I need to bring out this middle voice a little more?” It’s always intimidating to sit there with this big piece of metal and wood and have to connect with it and create a whole world.

It’s true that there are plenty of iconic solo piano records, but I haven’t listened to a new one in a very long time. What are some of your favorites, either from the past or more recent?

That’s kind of true for me too, actually. There’s a Keith Jarrett album that came out fairly recently, but it was all old recordings. I don’t listen to his solo albums very much, but I listen to bits and pieces, and I can always feel the essence of what he’s searching for. He’s very patient, sitting on an idea, a texture, a groove, and developing it. Mulgrew Miller’s solo album is also one of my favorites. There’s a Croatian classical pianist named Ivo Pogorelich who has my favorite recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which is one of my favorite pieces for piano of all time.

Are there any non-piano solo albums you’ve been particularly inspired by, or any you were trying to emulate on Inertia?

Actually, I’ve been listening to more textural albums. I’ve been diving more into music production, so I’ve been listening to people like Flying Lotus, and I try to emulate those types of textures. It’s not a melody or a chord progression; it’s just this rhythm, this pattern that repeats. I like to stretch time, almost like what J Dilla would do. I’m attracted to the concept of elastic time.

What are the necessary ingredients for a good solo piano record?

If it’s a jazz record—which I’m not even sure my album is, to be honest—it has to feel good. If you say it’s jazz, I’m assuming there’s some sense of swing, so it’s important to be clear with the rhythm. You can be playing an idea that’s clear in your head, but maybe the audience isn’t getting it. You have to be patient too. You have all these notes at your fingertips, and it’s very easy to play them all at once. You want to use your whole bag of tricks, but for a solo album to sound good, you need space. You need to be aware: “Oh, I can also not play as much.”

You use space really well on this record. There’s obviously some very virtuosic playing, but it never feels like showing off. Everything feels purposeful.

I really didn’t want it to be Oscar Rossignoli’s practicing album. If there are a lot of notes, they should all be there for a reason, rather than just me jamming. So it’s good to hear that.

The tracks on the album that I think best illustrate your use of time and space and texture are “Vámonos” and “Long Story Short.” Can you talk about the process of writing and recording those two, in particular?

Those tracks were very different in their conception and process. “Long Story Short” is a tune I wrote many years ago, during my LSU years; it might have started as homework. It’s gone through so many transformations. I’d play it by myself and say, “I don’t like this.” And then I’d play it with a band and say, “I don’t like that either,” so I’d keep changing it. I’d put it away, and then three years later I’d pull it out again and think, “I don’t like this bridge… I don’t like this intro… I don’t like these chords.” That’s why I named it “Long Story Short.” I was like, “This is it. I’m gonna record it so I don’t have to keep changing everything. It’s done!” [Laughs] That one is more traditional. There’s a form: a clear melody, chords that I follow when I improvise. With “Vámonos,” I had only two things preconceived: the bassline, which is one of the first things that happens, and the second theme, which is a little goofy—it sounds very Carribean in a way, but I tweaked it so there’s a little awkwardness, both in the weird meter and the way the chords are clustered. It’s not pretty. It’s something, but it’s not pretty. The first part is in four, but it’s doubtful; the second theme is a stricter idea, but it’s in seven. The song never settles into anything that’s totally comfortable; it’s always changing. I didn’t plan how I was gonna put it together or what to do first. I just started playing those two ideas and making them into one thing. That track is almost total improvisation.

Listening to this record and watching you live, it seems like you think more chordally than most improvisers. I know it’s hard to describe that process, but could you tell me a little about the state of mind you try to put yourself in when you improvise?

I like harmony, and I like exploring textures and elements of music that I sometimes can’t even name—a chord that’s just a cluster of notes that to me sound good together. I use the groove as a vehicle to explore the harmonic material, to dwell on chords I want to learn more about. If I stay there for a little I start hearing melodies, and the whole thing starts morphing into something.

How is the process of doing that solo different from when you’re interacting with other musicians live or on someone else’s track?

The challenge being on other people’s projects is to add your own sound and your own ideas but make sure you don’t get in the way of the artist’s vision. I have to be aware of what the track needs from the piano, how I can help the song be whatever it needs to be. If I’m playing solo, I don’t care so much if I just take a left turn to something completely different.

This album’s bio says “Preludio for Chick” was fully improvised. Did you set out to improvise a track to honor Chick Corea, or did it just feel like a fitting name for the song after he passed away?

I dedicated it to him after the fact. We were actually in the studio mixing this track, which didn’t have a name at the time. I was on my phone reading the news about Chick’s passing minutes after they announced it. It was very shocking to me: I didn’t realize how much his philosophy of creating music had influenced me. I’m listening to this track, and I’m like, “Holy shit, I’m hearing Chick! That melody’s from him, that texture, that chord, that voicing.” I’d like to think that track is something Chick would enjoy listening to, so I decided to make it my tribute to him.

Can you talk more about what made the philosophy behind his music so special?

You couldn’t put Chick Corea in a box. I’ve run into musicians who say, “Man, I don’t like Chick’s music,” and I ask “Which one?” I also have things I don’t like; some of his Elektric Band stuff from the ‘80s is too much for me. But then he would release solo classical music, then play duets with banjos, then write a symphony using the theme of Spain. If you look at his discography, it’s scary: He would release four albums a year, and they’d all be different. That openness—not thinking of himself as a jazz musician, just wanting to make music that was good and honest—is one of the things that influenced me the most. New Orleans has exactly that, in my opinion. My friends play R&B gigs, as well as trad jazz gigs, as well as Latin gigs, as well as straight-ahead gigs. The same person can play all those types of gigs because there’s so much variety that they have to learn to be flexible. I get calls for a Latin jazz project, then a free jazz session, and then I’m playing songs with John Boutté, songs James Booker wrote. I love that. I’m very comfortable navigating all these different worlds, and I think that’s what was at the heart of Chick’s philosophy. He just wanted people to feel good and share their music. He invited them to create no matter what.

Artists like Nicholas Payton have been emphasizing for years that these genre distinctions are meaningless—that it’s all just Black American Music, and that “jazz,” “R&B,” “funk,” and so on are just terms white people impose on it. Do you have a different perspective on that, coming not only from a Central American background but a classical background as well?

It’s always very difficult for me to name styles. Releasing this album on CD Baby, there are all these categories and you have to choose just one. I’m like, [sighs], “It’s jazz, I guess.” I don’t like to dwell too much on how we name things. We lose the essence and the humanity of the music that way. If somebody calls me—“Hey man, you wanna do this project?”—and I see that it’s honest and that they have their heart in it, that they’ve devoted themselves to this music and made sacrifices and put feeling into it, I want to be part of it. I don’t really care how you call it.

When you first started playing the music commonly referred to as jazz in high school, it must have felt somewhat foreign. Did you come to recontextualize it when you moved to Louisiana? Do you understand it differently now than you did back then?

I learned how to play this music from a distance. We didn’t have a strong music scene in Honduras or any jazz institutions; it was just a group of friends. We were all in the conservatory, so we were playing classical music and getting our education that way. But after hours, we would get together and play Latin jazz, trying to imitate musicians from Cuba like Chucho Valdés. I learned a lot, but until I moved to New Orleans I didn’t really understand how this music should feel. I knew the chords and the melody and the vocabulary, but how do you play it? How?! This music scene has made me more focused on the “how” than the “what.” Now, I’m like, “OK, that was a nice scale with complicated chords”—don’t get me wrong: I’m the king of complicated chords—“but why am I using it here?” I’m more interested in how it feels, how it sounds, how someone who doesn’t know anything about what I’m doing would feel listening to it. It changes the way you play.

There’s a big Honduran community in New Orleans, but it’s mostly invisible in the city’s public-facing image. Are there any Honduran musicians in New Orleans you collaborate with or have a mutual respect for? Do you think Honduran music has found its way into New Orleans music in ways people listening from outside the city might not get?

If that was ever the case, I don’t see it currently. But I’ve heard stories about Honduran artists here. There’s a Honduran singer, [Fredy Omar]… I’ve never met him. He’s the only Honduran artist I’ve heard people talk about here. I think he had a Latin band and he used to sing all over. I know there are Honduran musicians all over the U.S. playing in symphony orchestras, being conductors, doing their own things. We have a presence, but I haven’t found that connection in the music scene here. I have seen the Honduran community, of course. In the streets, when I run into people and hear them speaking English with a heavy accent, I start talking with them: “Hey, you speak Spanish?” “Yeah!” “Where are you from?” Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re from Honduras. But we’re not in the same circles. Lots of Honduran restaurants, though. I go every time I can, and that’s beautiful. When my dad visited New Orleans for the first time, he saw the connection immediately to his hometown, La Ceiba. It makes total sense because they are both port cities. In the ‘20s, there was a lot of import-export of coffee and bananas, and that’s why you have so many Hondurans here: the workers would settle after a while. My dad saw it in the architecture. I didn’t go to La Ceiba that much and I don’t remember it very well, but he says they have shotgun houses there. It’s also a festival city, the city that parties the most in Honduras. It’s our sister city, for sure.

How did you deal with being so far away from your family during COVID? What’s the situation like in Honduras?

It’s been tough for everybody, of course. You know how things are chaotic and mishandled in this country sometimes? Well, imagine not even having the resources to mishandle. We have nothing, but there’s still so much corruption in our government, and it really kills the community. So if things were difficult here, imagine them twice, three times worse back home. Meanwhile, I’m here on a visa because I’m a musician, because I have work playing shows. But when everything stops, there’s no more work, so what do you do? That uncertainty makes you unable to do anything. You can’t say, “Oh! I’m just gonna move to this other place!” What other place? Everything is closed! It got even more difficult when I got the news that my mom had COVID. I was doing a concert with John Boutté at Bywater Bakery, and on my way home, my dad texted me and said, “Your mom was feeling sick and today she tested positive.” I couldn’t go there and be with her. There was nothing to do but wait. She got out of it, thankfully, without going through it too bad. She had some severe symptoms but her oxygen was always controlled… Every musician in New Orleans was going through an identity crisis. I was thinking, “Should I go learn coding or something?” But that’s what forced me to go to the studio and do this album. I thought, “Well, if something happens and I end up doing something completely different, I have to at least do something; I have to put this music out.” Those moments of desperation can push you. If I was as busy all year as I was at the beginning of 2020, I doubt I would have had the time or focus to record a solo album of original music. I would have said, “I’m too busy. Maybe in the summer, maybe at the end of the year.” So the circumstances helped me in that regard.

I saw in Inertia’s bio that “Siempre” is dedicated to your friend José who passed away recently. Do you want to say anything about him or about that song before we wrap up?

José was a friend I grew up with in the conservatory. He was a multi-instrumentalist, one of those freaks. I would tell him, “Man, you’re my favorite pianist in Honduras,” even though he was studying percussion. And he was the bass player of our group. If he had decided to be the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, he would have done it beautifully. He was our musical treasure. In the middle of all this shit happening, he had health complications. Again, I couldn’t go there. I saw the memorial service via Facebook Live. Almost immediately afterwards, I went to the piano and started playing something. In my mind, I was playing it for him.

Inertia is out now on all major platforms. Catch Oscar Rossignoli gigging all over town during the week, and at his regular gigs on the weekend: Fridays and Saturdays at Windsor Court Hotel, Sunday brunches and Monday dinners in the church at The Elysian Bar, and Sunday nights til late with Pat Casey and the New Sound at The Spotted Cat.

photos by Katie Sikora

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