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It's a New Age With Flamenco Musician : Guitarist Ottmar Liebert and his group, Luna Negra, will kick off their latest tour at the Ventura Theater on Friday night.

September 09, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Guitarist Ottmar Liebert is, indisputably, a New Age mega-star. To confirm this, just consult the New Age charts, where his pop/flamenco-esque albums have resided toward the upper reaches for the last few years.

But try not to hold it against him.

It all happened by accident, much in the way fame, a decade ago, came knocking at the door of amateur pianist and now New Age veteran George Winston. Fame was Winston's unannounced house guest bearing a contract lined in gold.

When the 32-year-old Liebert and his group, Luna Negra, kick off their latest tour at the Ventura Theater Friday night, the signs of success will be in tow. For one thing, this will be the first time they travel in an 18-wheeler, with a self-contained sound and lighting system.

It all began four years ago with a humble, home-grown recording done in Santa Fe, where the German-born musician has lived for several years now. Recorded for $3,000 on cheap equipment, with a pressing of only a 1,000 copies, the album leaked out and began to get massive airplay on the influential Los Angeles-based station KTWV--a.k.a. "The WAVE."

Said wave engulfed Liebert, whose once trademark acoustic flamenco guitar work has since been imitated by many.

Re-released on the Montecito-based Higher Octave label as "Nouveau Flamenco," the album took off instantly and hasn't left the charts for 175 weeks.

Liebert was meteorically transformed from a musician on the Santa Fe restaurant circuit to someone with an international profile and a contract on Epic records. Now, you hear his music in finer restaurants and grocery stores everywhere.

And there is a local angle: Most of his music has been recorded in the low-profile, state-of-the-art Sound Design studio in Santa Barbara. There, Liebert met studio owner-engineer-keyboardist Dom Camardella, who has worked with Liebert as a producer and keyboardist ever since.

Liebert's brand-new album, "The Hours Between Night and Day," is his fifth and continues the "nouveau flamenco" tradition while extending it slightly. The textural palette now includes some electric and synthesized guitar parts, koto, a customized lute, and other unexpected sounds.

Also, they pull off an interesting Spanish language version of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me."

This is music that goes down easily, and what it lacks in innovation or derring-do it gains in listener-friendliness. Melodies tend to come in bite-size chunks, more like pop hooks than fully developed themes.

You keep waiting for the musicians to break loose, to begin solos that don't always come to pass. Instead, the music lurks around some motivic pleasantries, with nowhere special to go. Liebert's music tends to hang out in admittedly seductive, quasi-exotic atmospheres.

An amiable and forthright Liebert spoke from his hotel in Los Angeles last week, just before going off to a session for a Japanese- sponsored album project in homage to Edith Piaf.

How many New Age superstars can put that feather in their hats?

You've dealt with a lot of different musics. Where did your interest in flamenco begin?

When I moved to Santa Fe, in about '86. I took some lessons in flamenco and before that, it had been just by ear. I had always been attracted to it, but in the surroundings of Santa Fe, it came to a new focus.

Also, the way I grew up, I wasn't in a mono-cultural lifestyle, because of my varied background. I've always been into adapting things and making them work for me. Therefore, I don't think of all those different styles as being completely different languages. They're things you can combine.

How did you come to start recording in Santa Barbara--was that at Higher Octave's behest?

Yeah, they brought me out to Santa Barbara to be closer to their office and introduced me to the owner and engineer, Dom Camardella, who became my co-producer. With Dom and I, there's a certain understanding of the music and what we're trying to do, which is very unique.

Your music is broader in its points of reference than a lot of what passes for New Age. Do you feel out of place in that world?

Well, they're just words. We have tried to come up with a new catch phrase about what our music is about. This year, we decided it's either "global music" or "alternative flamenco" music.

New Age is just a category that, for some people, my music fits into. I guess it's as good a category as any. But it's just a word. I have nothing against a word.

But is there a stigma attached, being so directly tagged as a New Age artist?

I've heard many times people describe me by saying 'Oh, Ottmar Liebert, he's in the New Age section, but he's OK.' That's probably the stigma you're talking about.

At home, I've got records organized from A to Z. There's a record store in Santa Fe that did that, too, without the categories. As long as they're there . . . What am I going to do, put an ad in the L.A. Times saying I'm not a New Age guitar player? It doesn't really matter.

Are there musical areas you'd like to branch out into in the future?

I like where we're branching out here on this album, especially with the lute. I want to have some Arabic musicians on the next one. I'd like to get some Indian musicians involved too. I'd like to do more vocals, maybe this time in Arabic or Japanese or, God knows, in Italian or something.

So your options are pretty wide open?

Yeah. I just want to keep opening doors and not close any of them so I can keep going. Part of it is that you need to stay excited about what you're doing as a musician. And part of that is giving yourself new colors on the palette, whether that's new instruments or new sound possibilities.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra, Friday at 9 p.m. at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. Tickets: $19.50. Information: 648-1888.

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