If the New Age charts fall outside your musical range of view, it's likely
that Ottmar Liebert has largely escaped your attention. That's one of the
sad results of the flood of musical styles and product that has pushed
everything into some degree of categorization. None of us can hear
everything, so most of us end up missing much of the best that's out
Ottmar Liebert, whose music is relatively new to my ears as well, is one
of the best out there. Not only is he an accomplished guitarist in a
challenging style (flamenco), but he's an able composer, a talented
bandleader and one of the truly creative forces in contemporary music.
He's about to launch himself as a formidable entrepreneurial force as
well, with a new label that will hit the shelves with three acts derived
from one monumental musical mind.
I had a chance to catch Liebert's performance in Seattle during his
current tour in support of his 11th release on Epic Records, Little Wing.
The bill was simply Liebert and his Luna Negra XL sextet (Mark Clark,
percussion; John Gagan, bass & synth; Calvin Hazen, guitar; Kanoa
Kaluhiwa, sax; Mike Middleton, trumpet & flugelhorn; Michael Chavez, trap
drums & bongos), but no one missed an opening act. It was a bravura
performance that included Liebert's own brand of "nouveau flamenco," (which
was also the name of his 1990 debut on Higher Octave) and elements of bossa
nova, Afro-Cuban, R&B, mariachi, rock and straight ahead jazz. The son of
a Chinese/German father and a Hungarian mother, Liebert is a self
described "mutt," a fact he uses to partly explain his interest in
crossing musical boundaries.
Every member of the band performed admirably, but I'm compelled to point
out percussionist Mark Clark for special notice. While timbales would
probably be considered his primary voice in the ensemble, over the course
of the evening he drew on an astonishing array of drums, cymbals, gongs,
chimes, shakers, clappers, whistles and bird calls to help create a rich
curtain of sound that enveloped each selection.
I caught up to Ottmar Liebert by phone the following afternoon, by which
time he'd already arrived at the outskirts of Salt Lake City en route to a
Las Vegas date. We talked about the past, present and the intriguing
promise of his musical future.
Cosmik: You were born in Germany and came to the us in the
Ottmar: 1979. I've been in Santa Fe since 1986.
Cosmik: Did you come over with your family?
Ottmar: By myself.
Cosmik: And you came to work in rock music...
Ottmar: Yes, in Boston.
Cosmik: And in 86 you went to Santa Fe. That's an interesting choice, since
we don't usually think of Santa Fe as a place you go to make it in the
Ottmar: It was just a stopping point on the way to Los Angeles. I was
visiting a friend and I fell in love with the city. It's a very cool
place and I stuck with it.
Cosmik: And you took a completely different musical direction.
Ottmar: I had worked in Boston for seven years, we made records, you know, we
would go to the bank and tell them we needed a loan to buy a new stereo
and go the studio and buy as much studio time as we could. We'd pick the
studio time after midnight, so after a while I took a job as a bicycle
messenger because you're pretty flexible doing that. I remember days when
I'd go to the studio at midnight, get out of there at five, go home and
sleep for a couple hours and then get on my bike for a day. The next night
we'd have a show. It was pretty exhausting, and I needed a change of
I was helping a friend drive a van back to Santa Fe where he was from and
I was going to stay for a couple weeks, rest up and go to Los Angeles.
Instead I just really enjoyed the city. There's a great mixture of things
there. You've got the Indian culture, the Hispanic culture and everything
else there is called the Anglo culture. It's sort of mixed in an
interesting way. There are restaurants that combine Mexican food with
everything from California, Italian, French, to Asian cuisine. I remember
going to a restaurant and in the back room they had a trio playing and it
was a classical violinist, a flamenco guitarist and a banjo player.
Cosmik: That's quite a mix. Have you used a banjo player yet?
[Photo by Tim Owen]
Ottmar: I actually personally hate the banjo. I can't stand the sound of the
banjo. I use that to illustrate, I mean, that's a wacky combination, and
I thought to myself that any town that enjoys a trio consisting of a
banjo, a flamenco guitarist and a violin is pretty cool.
Cosmik: You've got to be able to find a niche in a town like that.
Ottmar: Yeah. So I studied with a flamenco guitar player for about six months
and that was my starting point basically.
Cosmik: That's interesting. There's an artist here, Omar Torres, who is a
flamenco guitarist who is taking his music in a blues and rock direction,
and you basically came at it the other way, coming from jazz and pop and
moving into flamenco.
Ottmar: Well, there are quite a few groups in Spain that mix blues with their
flamenco. There's a band called Papa Negra, for example. There's an
album that's a few years old, with Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music, with a
band called Cherokee, that's a fantastic album. But with a name like
Cherokee, that's obviously not straight flamenco.
Cosmik: And you've never been a straight flamenco player....
Ottmar: Oh, never.
Cosmik: But you use the word, which has brought you some grief from the
hardcore flamenco community, notably among players from Paco di Lucia,
who's really not a strictly traditional player himself.
Ottmar: Well, it's a fine line that people draw in the sand, and change it,
and draw it again. I think it was fair to use the word flamenco, I called
it nouveau flamenco, because that was part of the sound and you've got to
use some word to say what your music is. It did change a lot in the music
industry and there's now hundreds, thousands, of bands that came out of
that record in 1990 called Nouveau Flamenco.
I've talked to Paco before about it, and part of it is also a Spanish
thing. He thinks of it as very much of a Spanish art, which is fine with
me. I've worked with Spanish flamenco guitar players who are as flamenco
as can be, guys who are actually Gitanos, Gypsies who grew up in caves and
play flamenco, and they've enjoyed my music. So it's a line that gets
redrawn all the time, what's traditional and what's not. I think myself,
not having been born there, not having grown up with it, I would never
dream of calling myself a traditional flamenco player. That's never been
my interest, I've always been into mixing stuff up. I'm a mutt myself,
and so I've always been interested in mixing cultural things. I've never
felt that, hey, I was born in Germany, therefore I should pursue German
art. It's always been, this sounds interesting and this sounds
I didn't go to music school, I went to an arts school, and in many
respects fine arts are way ahead of where music is. We're still
discussing the legalities of loops and samples, and someone could show up
in a gallery with a toilet seat in the teens and twenties and say "This is
ready-made art." So I think philosophically and actually, fine art is way
ahead of where music is. I still get questions, you know, "How do you
feel about sampled music?" and my standard answer to that is that a
classical musician has ten on the ability and sometimes only a one on the
creativity, whereas some kid from Compton with a sampler may have a very
low understanding of the music, but makes some very cool music and is very
creative. The balance lies somewhere in between.
Cosmik: Well, last night I heard some flamenco, some bossa nova, some R&B,
some of just about everything. One of the issues that always comes up in
music is categorization, and you've been put into the new age or smooth
jazz boxes, and I wonder if that's a concern to you, whether people might
miss the music because of those labels.
Ottmar: Well, I don't think I'm really in the smooth jazz category. That's a
new one for me. The new age category I'm very comfortable with, because
that's actually a very open category. Anything goes. That's actually
been very handy with the record company, because if I called it jazz,
people say "Oh, I know about jazz, I know what that's supposed to sound
like." But in new age, they just say "Well, we don't know what you're
doing, so just keep on doing what you're doing. That's fine."
Cosmik: Interestingly, as I looked for information on your influences, the
name that came up the most frequently wasn't a particular guitarist, but
[Photo by Tim Owen]
Ottmar: Yes. In fact, in 1990, on one of the first mini-tours my band took,
at the lovely Paramount Theatre in Seattle, we opened a show for Miles
Davis, and that was one of the highlights for me. The reason I came to
the US was pretty simple. I was a huge fan of Carlos Santana and Miles
Davis and the other music I heard from America. I loved the music of John
McLaughlin and people like that, and they'd all made pilgrimages to the US
so I thought that's where I want to go. If you listen to Miles,
especially the later stuff, there's an incredible mixture of music from
India, from Turkey, from a thousand sources of music there, and the same
with Carlos, who mixes Latin music with the blues. So it's been pretty
amazing that in the last ten years I've gotten to open for Miles, and I've
gotten to open for Carlos and sit in his show and stuff, so it's been
Cosmik: Well, if I saw anything in your performance that was reminiscent of a
Miles Davis concert, it was that although your guitar is the centerpiece
of the sound, and much of what people come for, there were times when you
would just sit and enjoy the music being created around you.
Ottmar: Yeah, I just wish I could walk around the way he did. Unfortunately
you can't play flamenco guitar standing up, walking around with a
wireless. So I'm tied down, but that's one of the things that influenced
me. Another thing is the same ending that Miles did when we saw him in
Seattle after our show, when he took the last solo and then left, and one
person left after another. So we took that as an inspiration for our
ending last night in Seattle.
Cosmik: And you did something similar at the intermission, leaving a Calvin
Hazen (guitar) and Mark Clark (percussion) onstage.
Ottmar: Yes. I wanted to show just a little bit of where the music comes from
and Calvin has been living in Spain for the last four or five years and he
plays in traditional flamenco clubs, the biggest ones in Spain,
accompanying dancers and singers, so I thought it would be really cool to
show what he could do. I really enjoy what he does. I'm usually standing
back there listening when he does that because he's really great.
Cosmik: I was very impressed, too, by Mike Clark. You're really blessed with
Ottmar: Rhythm has always been really important to me. In fact, the first
guitar players I wanted to emulate were people like Paul Jackson, guys
that make great rhythm guitar work. He's been on, you know, ten thousand
pop songs. I've always been into the groove and getting good
percussionists, so we've had a succession of just fantastic
percussionists. There's a lot of them living in New Mexico, so we have
been blessed that way.
Cosmik: Moving on to the new album, as always there's an array of wonderful
original music there, but you made some very interesting choices in
Ottmar: Well, the reason for the covers in the first place is that this is my
last album for Epic Records, and I thought "How do I wrap up these ten
years?" There have been eleven albums with them, fourteen albums total,
what do I do? And I thought one of the things that might be good was to
show some of the music that turned me on when I was a teenager, that made
me want to make music. Some of those were "Little Wing" by Hendrix,
"Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. What I liked about "Kashmir" was the same
thing I like about "Paint It Black," sort of Arabic influence which lends
itself to flamenco, because there's a lot of Arabic influence in flamenco
as well. "Girl From Ipanema," well, I've always been a huge bossa nova fan
and Jobim is one of my heroes. In a way, I always thought of nouveau
flamenco as relating to flamenco the way bossa nova relates to samba.
Where samba is very rhythmical, bossa nova puts emphasis on the melody,
and that's sort of what I was trying to do with nouveau.
Cosmik: Well, since it's such a classic tune, recording "Ipanema" makes you a
target again for the purists in the bossa nova field. It's not as safe a
choice as it might seem.
Ottmar: Actually, I played it for a friend of mine, Oscar Castro-Neves, who
was one of the original bossa nova guys with Jobim and a bunch of others,
and he liked it.
Cosmik: As well he should, it's a beautiful version.
Ottmar: I got his blessing, so that was good. I played at a Jobim tribute at
Carnegie Hall a few years back that was wonderful, because I was one of
the only, maybe there were a handful of non-Brazilians, and it was
wonderful to play with them because I hold Brazilian musicians in general
in the highest regard.
Cosmik: So this is the last album for Epic? You've found a new home, a new
Ottmar: No contract. It's my own company. I've had a bunch of offers, but I
thought this is really time to do things myself. I want to split into
three different entities and do some things that I'm not sure record
companies would go for. I'm going to record for my own label, which is
called SSI, and we have a website being built right now at
The three entities will be one, solo, which will have no drums or
percussion. The second will be Luna Negra, which will be following the
nouveau flamenco theme, more acoustic bass, more acoustic percussion, then
the third will be Euphoria, which will start where my albums Euphoria and
Opium left off, a lot of remix stuff, dance beats, sequencers, all that
stuff. The first album will be a lullaby album, because I think there's a
need for some original lullabies out there, and it's been quite
challenging to work on them and to make the music relaxing but not
boring. I'm trying a lot of different things so that even with repeat
listening it won't get boring. So that first album on SSI will be out
sometime next year, and we'll also start working on a Luna Negra album
sometime this summer.
Cosmik: Have you arranged the distribution?
Ottmar: Yes. The distributor we're going with, Valley Entertainment, which is
one of the two or three largest ones in the United States, happens to be
in Santa Fe, so I can show up on the doorstep and say "Hey, what's going
on? Where are the records?" I don't actually have to fly to New York or
LA or anything, it's all right at home.
Cosmik: Before you're done, you'll have people calling Santa Fe "Music City."
Ottmar: I hope that won't happen. There were people talking about turning
Santa Fe into Hollywood a few years ago, and luckily that didn't happen.
Cosmik: Well, it would be much better to be Music City.
Ottmar: Yeah, no shit.
Cosmik: The Euphoria direction interests me. Luna Negra is well established,
and you're solo guitar isn't a startling departure from that, but even
though you've made a couple albums in that vein, electronic dance music
isn't really what you've built your career on.
Ottmar: Well, what happened, I got quite a few new listeners through Opium and
Euphoria, and I get quite a few e-mails asking "When are you going to do
another one?" It's a younger audience, and some of them actually heard it
for the first time in clubs.
I actually had a 12 inch vinyl thing done for one of the songs from the
Euphoria album, because someone from the dance department heard one of the
songs at a club and asked the DJ about it, and the DJ said "I don't know
what it is, but it sounds nice and a lot of people are playing it." He
called me up and said, "Hey, would you be opposed to putting a 12 inch
single out, because it's out in the clubs anyway and we might as well have
an official distribution so people know what it is." So I think what's
going to happen is we're going to try to make it very clear. I'm really
excited about the Euphoria direction. I have a Powerbook with a wonderful
Swedish drum software and I'm working as we speak on drum machine stuff
and drum loops for the first Euphoria record. We're going to do a color
band on the album, at the top or the bottom, so it will be very clear, it
will say Luna Negra with a red band, Euphoria will have a grey band and my
solo stuff will have a blue band, so it will be very clear. If you prefer
the acoustic stuff, that's this, and if you want the more offbeat stuff,
the more electronic, we've got that too.
I'm sort of schizophrenic, I like both. I love traditional songs and all
the Cuban stuff and I want to go in all those directions, but I also want
to expand the music. I realize that not everybody's as schizophrenic, so
I want to make it possible to have both separately so that you could take
your pick. So far I've ended up putting on the same record, so I think
it's going to be more fun for me, because I can go more into the depths of
Cosmik: I'm trying to think of a precedent for what you're doing.
Ottmar: I can think of one, only. First of all, in the fine arts, it's
completely normal. Guys like Picasso did painting, sculpture, drawing,
everything. Guys like Rauschenberg take photographs, they print, they
paint. There's no reason that shouldn't go on in the music world. But
they other day someone said Pat Metheney is doing that. He's got his Pat
Metheney group, which is a six piece, and he's also got his Pat Metheney
Trio, which is a complete different entity. The group plays his own
songs, and the trio often plays standards.
Cosmik: As far as the solo work goes, is there any temptation to put together
a straight, traditional flamenco album just to put one out there and
display those chops and let people draw what conclusions they will from
Ottmar: (laughs) Maybe. I hadn't thought of it, but it's possible.
Cosmik: It would be interesting to see the traditionalist reaction, because
your chops have developed to a point that you could make an interesting
[Photo by Tim Owen]
Ottmar: Yeah, it's a matter of giving it some sort of twist to make it
interesting. Otherwise, why do it in the first place? If I can find
something different that I can do, then it's a possibility. If I can't, I
don't really see the point in spending the time and effort when there's
thousands of albums like that out there.
Cosmik: True, and thousands of people who do nothing but that.
Ottmar: Yes, exactly.
Cosmik: Well, you've certainly found an impressive audience for what you do,
but when this all started you probably didn't have a particular audience
Ottmar: No, I didn't. I had the opportunity, someone else was paying for the
making of the album, and I just had the opportunity to record what I was
hearing in my head, so I just jumped at that, and I had no idea. Epic was
telling me that Nouveau Flamenco is now the biggest guitar album of all
time, which is great, but I literally had no idea. I recorded it for a
few thousand dollars at a little garage studio in Santa Fe. The studio
was right behind a concrete mixing place, and every time the trucks came we
had to stop recording.
Cosmik: And there's a fine arts connection with the creation of that album,
Ottmar: Well, it was actually paid for by the late Frank Howell, who was an
Indian painter in Santa Fe, and who owned several galleries. For Indian
Market Week in Santa Fe, which is the third week of August every year, he
often created special gifts for a lot of the clients. One year he had a
country singer make a record for him, and he decided he wanted me to make
a record for him. It was the rarest of rarities, a handshake deal. He
would pay for the studio time, and the other musicians. I would not get
paid, but once he had made a thousand copies of it, I would receive the
master. So he pressed a thousand copies, and I got the master. I was
approached, because some of the thousand copies found there way to the
Wave in Los Angeles and KKFF in San Francisco, so I got calls from a
couple different labels and I made a deal with Higher Octave, which
released the album in 1990.
Cosmik: That handshake deal turned out better than most signed muli-page
contracts in the music business ever do.
Ottmar: I'd say. I mean, I took a chance, I was just happy to hear my music,
and if I hadn't been approached by a label or something, it would have
just ended there, but it turned out good.
Cosmik: And you might still be playing the Santa Fe restaurant circuit.
Ottmar: That's right. We still play the restaurant circuit sometimes. The
other day we were staying in Oakland between shows and I called a friend
of mine who owns a well known restaurant, the Mecca, and I said "I can
bring five musicians if you can wine and dine us." So we went over with
the bus and we played for food. He had a nice table for us, and we ate
and drank, and we played a 45 minute show right in his restaurant. So we
still play the restaurant circuit every once in a while.
Cosmik: So you've go some tour dates left, then is it into the studio?
Ottmar: Studio in July and August, then in September we'll go back out to
Texas, New Orleans, Florida, the whole east coast for about five weeks.
After that we'll be going to Mexico, and there's a possibility of going to
Italy, and that will probably be the end of the tour unless we go back to
Australia and New Zealand in February.
With that, I offered my thanks for a wonderful night of music the previous
night, and Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra XL were back on the road. It's a
road that winds all the way around the world, so it's likely to run near
you eventually. When it does, I encourage you to put aside whatever
notions you have about new age music, get to a show, and prepare to be