Ottmar Liebert: A Flamenco Guitarist Who'd Rather Listen to Horns

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Matt Callahan
Ottmar Liebert is one of the most popular flamenco-style guitarists, yet he doesn't like to place himself in that genre. Instead, Liebert infuses flamenco techniques with his own style that borrows from non-stringed instruments and genres you'd never imagine he'd listen to. The Grammy-nominated and platinum-selling musician relies on touring and record sales to make a living, which would seem to have given him a practical, unromantic outlook on the art form, but it's actually become his guide for how he interprets the world and finds his way through it.

He plays with his trio at the Coach House on Thursday, and even if you're not into flamenco or its fusions, he shares some sound advice for aspiring musicians in all genres.


OC Weekly (LP Hastings): How did you find flamenco music? 

Ottmar Liebert: When I was about 13 or 14, I found it in a supermarket in Cólon. I found a vinyl LP in an overflow bin, and that was my first exposure to it.

Why did you decide this was the type of music you wanted to play?

I've always loved the techniques of the guitar. I do use a lot of flamenco techniques, but it's a combination of different things. The Arabs were in Spain for many hundreds of years, and the gypsies were a people from India who ended up in Spain and everywhere else. So, the music sounds different in every country it's in. Just the way jazz is a mishmash, so is flamenco. And odd meters such as 12/8 are very much a part of flamenco. I do usually play a traditional piece at some point in every show, but I listen to a lot of different types of music.

What other genres do you like?

Well, I really like Wah Wah Watson, who played with Herbie Hancock and on a lot of Motown albums. The first concert I saw was Earth, Wind and Fire opening for Santana when I was 15. I later did a tour opening for Santana.

Who are your favorite guitar players?

I probably listen more to horn players than guitar players. Guitar is an interesting instrument because, like a piano, you don't have to come up for air. I like listening to air instruments. I see it as a challenge to try to convert some of those ideas and play it on guitar.

If you were going to recommend any albums for someone just beginning to listen to flamenco, what would they be?

Nuevo Flamenco; The Hours Between Day and Night; Opium; and Dune, my new album. I really like that one.

You tour an awful lot. What is is like to be on the road so much?

This is what I have to do to make a living. It's strange; when we toured with Santana, we were always playing at these huge venues outside of town, and they all look the same, and it's almost like you never know where you really are.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

Get a day job. In the '80s, I was a bicycle messenger in Boston for three years. . . . But don't set limits. Just keep going, and even if it doesn't look to others as though you're getting somewhere, sometimes that's the struggle that actually releases the best stuff. . . . If there's a musician with a vision, you just need to sort of do it. . . . It's like surfing; you have to be slightly ahead of the wave and know where it's gonna be in five seconds to get on top of it and surf. You've got to think what's the music scene going to be like six months from now.

How do you continue to write and be motivated by your music after all these years?

To me, making music is really like defining my relationship to the world, and that's something you never finish because the world keeps changing. So basically, I'm reacting to how everything else changes, how we're reacting to things, how we're combining things, what works and what doesn't work. Music and art define things before the general culture.

Ottmar Liebert performs at The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano; www.thecoachhouse.com. Thursday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m. $30.

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