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Liebert's Music Grows in the Dark

September 16, 1993|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Guitarist Ottmar Liebert is a master of mood, a musician who looks to create visual images with his hybrid blend of classical, jazz and ethnic styles he has dubbed "Nouveau Flamenco."

That this tack has served him well is apparent in the success of the album of the same name, which remains on Billboard's Top 20 New Age chart three years after its release.

But if you think Liebert is not one to tinker with success, think again. His appearance Tuesday at the Coach House with the five-piece ensemble Luna Negra was full of refinements that reflect the direction established on his recent "The Hours Between Night + Day" album.

Devoted fans--and there are many judging by the enthusiasm of those who sold out Tuesday's concert--needn't worry. The unique flavor of Liebert's work is intact. But the guitarist has polished his presentation and his playing reflected a maturity not seen in his previous area appearances.

"Night + Day" carries a more consistent, somewhat darker mood than his previous releases and this focus of feeling seems to have helped the guitarist find his voice. Missing are the pointless, happy-face themes that marred the early albums. Instead, Liebert paints scenic backdrops with such titles as "Temple Dawn" and "Morning in Goa" over which he swirls his Spanish-inspired guitar lines.

Looking very much the wandering minstrel with his long hair, muscle shirt and sandals (which he later discarded), Liebert opened with the first three tunes from the new album before branching off to past glories.

The moodiness of "Bombay," with its understated percussion from Mike Clark and acoustic-piano passages played by Domenico Camardella, set the tone. Then Liebert built a more-solidly rhythmic foundation with his chuck-a-chuck strumming on the introduction to "Snakecharmer." The tune used a variety of instrument combinations and synthesizer colors to buttress its simple, melodic theme.

The group followed with a Latin-tinged version of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," a nice rhythmic change of pace that found Liebert working through a surprisingly relaxed improvisation that featured his fleet, circular figures.

Liebert's playing throughout the show seemed to rely less on technical displays as in the past and more on lyrical lines and a sense of narration. At times, he would burst into the kind of long, classically flavored lines that Segovia might have admired, but for the most part, these displays fit into the flow rather than splashing against it.

The same can be said of Camardella, whose piano leads, often played on acoustic, added percussive as well as harmonic depth. Further deepening the sound was second guitarist Calvin Hazen, who shadowed Liebert with embellishments or matched him in tight unison.

Bassist Jon Gagan was a model of reserve on electric bass, adding quiet, bell-like tones and rhythmic emphasis. His acoustic-bass work, often played with a bow, was equally tasteful.

Despite the variety of tempos and sound combinations that Liebert is introducing to his music, the danger remains that too much of Liebert is too much of a good thing, and after an hour the flamenco sounds of an accelerating guitar become predictable.

Liebert seemed aware of this, cutting a number of tunes from the playlist printed in the official program (nice, but is it really worth $8?) and keeping his solo excursions on the pithy side. But the good news from Tuesday's appearance is that nouveau flamenco continues to develop.

Liebert and Luna Negra were also scheduled to appear Wednesday.

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