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After 24 Years, Lee Oskar Turns to Post-War Life : Harmonica player quit the R & B group to pursue his solo career and business. He brings his new act to Wheeler Hot Springs.

March 24, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

B group War made a big splash in the '70s, with such hits as "Cisco Kid," "World Is A Ghetto" and "Lowrider," and they've been riding the ripples ever since. One of the distinguishing features of the their trademark sound was the salt 'n' silk timbre of Lee Oskar's harmonica.

It was, anyway, until Jan. 1 of this year. That is when Oskar, long disgruntled with the group's management and eager to chase down his own private muse, officially called it quits after 24 years of duty with the band.

For the Danish-born Oskar, the motive for quitting wasn't only to pick up the threads of a long-stymied solo career--he hasn't put out a solo work since three well-received albums in the late '70s and early '80s.

Since 1983, Oskar has produced a line of custom harmonicas under the Lee Oskar name and has made some strong inroads on the manufacturing side of the music industry.

In his shoes as a bandleader, Oskar will pass through the area on Sunday, returning to Wheeler Hot Springs, where he played last summer. He'll bring along a group of accomplished, versatile Los Angelenos: saxophonist is Larry Klimas, bassist Bob Mair, drummer Dave Karasony, guitarist Darryl Karrako, percussionist Dave Romero and keyboardist Jeff Daniel.

"I've always wanted to get into something like Weather Report," Oskar explained, referring to the jazz fusion ensemble established in the 1970s. "I'd love to experience new things and take my music to another plateau. These guys I'm performing with are certainly going to help me do that."

The harmonica-making business also takes Oskar to distant corners. Last week, Oskar spoke on the phone from Frankfurt, Germany, where he was holding down a booth at the Musik Messe trade show, the largest international convention for music manufacturers.

This is a major turning point in Oskar's musical career--life after War.

"It ends up that there are three things that I had responsibility to: manufacturing and marketing harmonicas, the War thing, and my solo career. I had to give up one of those, or I would spread myself too thin."

What you won't hear from Oskar is an easily tagged, homogenous musical approach. His material and technique incorporates strains of R & B, pop, blues and jazz, eluding easy definitions of his music.

At the root of it all may be a blues tradition, he says. "In a sense, blues is not just a 12-bar form or the typical three chords," he said. "It's a way you express something. Ray Charles is probably my greatest influence. He could sing about toothpaste and make you cry."

Of his own music, Oskar said, "I look at it as being different tubes of paint, for different paintings. Different things create different moods. I like grooves. I like funk, reggae, what you call jazz. I don't know how to categorize it all."

What, then, is Oskar's answer when people ask him what kind of music he plays?

"I have two answers: one is, if someone asks me, 'What kind of music do you play?' I say, 'What kind of music do you like?' Whatever they say, I come back with, 'Yeah, I play that.' I remember with War, we had a number one hit, 'World Is A Ghetto.' It was on three different charts--on the pop, jazz, and R & B," he said.

"I think a lot of times, people will follow a trend based on image and marketing. But the bottom line is, if the music has some depth to it, if it doesn't sound like it's painting-by-numbers, then it rings true. The old cliche is true, about it being a universal language. It don't matter where you are in the world: If the magic is there, it comes across. If I didn't believe that, I would be going crazy."

THE WORLD AT YOUR DOORSTEP

Some of us tend to register skepticism whenever culture is presented with exclamation points, as if an extra ounce of hype were necessary for salesmanship. But in the case of the Ventura County Symphony's "Musics Alive!" series, all is forgiven.

As heard at last week's "China Alive!" the second concert in music director Boris Brott's three-concert series, the celebration of contemporary and world music is proving to be the event of the musical season in the county. Really!

Opening the program, at Ojai's Rancho Del Rey, was the seductive Chinoiserie of British composer Arthur Bliss's 1923 work, "Women of Yueh." Stately soprano Kerry Walsh sang with pearly potency, as is her wont. Later, more authentic Chinese sonorities were fascinatingly demonstrated by Zhang Yan, performing alone on the gu-zheng --like a giant, ultra-resonant zither--and with a chamber ensemble.

The centerpiece of the evening, though, was the impressive three-movement work, "Music for a Thousand Autumns," written by Chinese-Canadian composer Alexina Louie for an ensemble utilizing Western and Eastern instruments and techniques. In a piece both enchanting and bracing, Louie smartly explored commonality between different traditions under universal culture umbrella.

The musicians gathered here, notably pianist Gloria Cheng, delivered a consistently high level of sensitivity and clarity in this enriching border-crossing adventure.

Next up: "India Alive!" at the Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo on April 12.

Details

* WHAT: Lee Oskar

* WHEN: Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

* WHERE: Wheeler Hot Springs

* COST: Prix fixe dinner-and-concert, $50

* FYI: 646-8131

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