Flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert was entranced by Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti” as a kid

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 10, 1999

By Steve Newton

When Ottmar Liebert calls the Georgia Straight from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it sounds as if the popular flamenco guitarist is living in a bird sanctuary. There’s a constant chirping in the background, the likes of which I haven’t heard since Tippi Hedren got pecked in that old Alfred Hitchcock flick.

“It’s just one bird,” explains Liebert with a chuckle. “It’s an African grey. He does telephones very well, too, which is annoying. And a friend of mine was here from London for just a coupla days, and in those two days he somehow managed to teach him ‘Redrum’ from The Shining. The next day I went to L.A. to play on a Mexican pop song, and when I came back, it was 1 o’clock in the morning and my wife was on the phone with her sister ’cause the bird was freakin’ her out. Suddenly, she heard this voice, ‘Redrum, redrum,’ and he mimicked the movie perfectly.”

I had a chirpin’ bird once myself, but it was no African grey, just a plain old Chilliwackian blue, and it couldn’t mimic any scary voices—even with a steady stream of horror flicks to cull from. Maybe my budgie was a tad on the deaf side, though, since it used to share the living room with my 100-watt stereo and heavy doses of Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult, and Montrose.

Liebert’s feathered friend probably has a more nurturing environment to learn in. At least, that’s what you’d guess after hearing the guitarist’s new CD, Innamorare—Summer Flamenco. Accompanied by his eight-piece band, Luna Negra XL—which he brings to the Vogue Theatre for a “huge rhythm fest” next Thursday (June 17)—Liebert is making blissful music that brings to mind the joyous vibe of his 1990 debut, Nouveau Flamenco.

“I’ve been a happy camper,” admits Liebert, who found inspiration for his current CD during a seven-week stay in Tuscany with family and friends. “There’s been a lot of albums in between where I was on a musical journey, but I’m sort of returning, at least feelwise, to 10 years ago—although the sound is quite different. There’s quite a few instruments on there that I’ve never used before, muted trumpet being one, slide guitar another, a drum kit being a third—I’ve never used a complete drum kit. So it has a bigger sound, also because of the horns.”

While Liebert’s flamenco guitar is always front and centre on Innamorare, bottleneck aficionados will appreciate the subtle slide shadings of Eric Schermerhorn, who also contributes some flattop picking to the disc. “The idea with the slide guitar just came from a conversation one evening with a friend of mine,” says Liebert. “I said, ‘You know, flamenco’s really just the blues of the Gypsies,’ and then I thought, ‘Well, what’s the most bluesy instrument for me? Definitely Dobro, slide guitar.’ So I invited Eric to come down for a couple of days and just put a bunch of slide guitar on the album.”

As if Schermerhorn’s tasty slide bits and his own vibrant flamenco stylings weren’t enough to satiate six-string fanatics, Liebert comes through with “Ballad 4 Santana”, a Latin-tinged tribute to guitar legend Carlos Santana. It turns out that the first concert Liebert ever went to, when he was 14, was a Santana gig.

“At the time, I was starting classical music,” relates Liebert, “and he sort of inspired me to try something else. Then a few years ago he asked me and my band to open for him on a U.S. tour for two or three months. I would stand backstage after our gig and he would play with his band for about half an hour, and then he’d get my whole band on-stage as well and we would play four or five songs, all together. And it was just one of those proverbial kids’ dreams come true, ’cause I’d seen him when I was 14 and loved it, and then I saw myself standing at the bottom of the stairs about to go on with him every night. It was pretty spectacular. So I wanted to do a homage to Carlos and sort of capture that feeling, that vibe that he had in the ’70s, especially with the ballads he was doing.”

Before the two guitarists toured together in 1996, Santana contributed to Liebert’s 1992 CD, Solo Para Ti, which included a version of “Samba Pa Ti”, a choice instrumental from Santana’s 1970 Abraxas album. “It’s a song that has a gorgeous melody,” Liebert raves, “but it’s one of those things that, even as a beginning guitar player, you can pick out the notes. After that first concert as a kid, I got the triple-vinyl set of Lotus, Santana live in Japan, for my birthday or something, and I’d spend days and weeks picking out ‘Samba Pa Ti’ and figuring that out. It was sorta the first thing that I didn’t learn by notes, you know, because until then it was all classical music: ‘Here’s the sheet music, learn how to play this.’ So it sort of set me on the whole journey.”

The journey so far has included numerous gold and platinum albums and a Grammy nomination for the guitarist, who was born in Cologne, Germany, to a Chinese-German father and a Hungarian mother. While still a teenager, Liebert travelled widely throughout Russia and Asia, absorbing the influences of indigenous musical traditions along the way. He’s employed dance rhythms from around the world in his accessible brand of flamenco jazz-pop, and took a classical side trip with 1997’s Leaning Into the Night, which included guitar-and-orchestra arrangements of pieces by Giacomo Puccini, Maurice Ravel, and Erik Satie.

But whatever musical road Liebert takes, it always comes back to the acoustic embrace of his guitar. And even in the high-tech, electronic century looming before us, he thinks that passion for pure sound will endure.

“The way I look at it,” he says, “we’re goin’ in two directions. Yes, we’ll have awesome electronic systems for amplifying sounds, and concert halls will probably change radically, where instead of having a house mixer chained to that position he’ll wear some sorta helmet and have a virtual mixer in front of him, and he’ll be able to walk around and adjust things. But at the same time, I think the very basics of it are something that you cannot do away with. I do these private benefit parties at wineries where I go in and it’s me, my guitar, and 30 or 40 people in a wine cellar—no amplification—and it is just beautiful to play that way.

“And I think that’s going to become a big thing,” he adds, “because on one side technology is great and it’s lovely to be able to do all that, but on the other hand to actually experience somebody—where it’s not a Webcast, it’s not TV, it’s not amplified, it’s actually somebody playing an instrument… I mean, right now, if you said to me, ‘You can go and hear Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach on cello,’ I’d easily pay between 500 and a thousand bucks for the pleasure. You know, I’d rather wait on a new car and do that, because that would be something that would be really special.”

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