Ottmar Liebert Chats with Concert Communicator
(Press photo by: Greg Gorman 2013)
OTTMAR LIEBERT INTERVIEW 05/26/2017
SEE HIM PERFORM LIVE AT DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB 06/05/2017
All content by: Patrick Dunn
Concert Communicator had the unique privilege of speaking with Grammy nominated, gold and platinum award winning guitarist, songwriter and producer Ottmar Liebert in advance of his upcoming performance scheduled for June 5th at Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, MN. Liebert is on tour with his band Luna Negra in support of current release "Slow". This album is a statement that offers an alternative space to escape the constant barrage of information that we all seem to be facing on a daily basis. Liebert spoke about the new album concept as well as some other interesting topics during our May 26th talk.
Concert Communicator: Your Minnesota fans are looking forward to your return to the Dakota Jazz Club on June 5th. When you think of your time here, is there anything that stands out or that you are looking forward to on this visit?
Ottmar Liebert: I usually go for long walks. A couple times when I’ve been at the Dakota, I’ve had my foldable bike with me and have really enjoyed going around a couple of nearby lakes. That’s something I always look forward to, but I do not have my bike with me on this trip, so I’ll just be walking around probably.
Concert Communicator: I love the concept behind your new album "Slow" - raising your guitar against the constant "state of alarm" that is our current reality. Did the recording of this album take place in the absence of all those distractions and if so, did that play a role in how these compositions came together?
Ottmar Liebert: My studio is really offline. I don’t have a phone line or cable and there’s no internet connection of any kind. When I’m there, it almost becomes this weird alternative time. I’m always surprised at how much time I’ve spent in there because there’s no clock either. It is sort of a haven away from all of the external noise.
I think our nervous systems are not supposed to be getting hit with so many fight or flight responses. The media has figured out how to trigger those and I don’t think it’s healthy for all of us to get those senses evoked so many times a day. When you think of all the hormones that curse through us because as a result of that, it can’t be good.
Years ago already, the author Neal Stephenson wrote that it would take 50 years for people to get over the internet. Not in the sense of getting rid of it, but just sort of figuring out a way to deal with it properly. The World Wide Web caught on around 1994, so to reach this milestone in 2044 we still have a way to go.
I think that’s what happens with a lot of transformative technologies like television. At first people were spending 5 or 6 hours at a time, it’s just so seductive. The internet has had that same sort of affect. Now that everybody has switched basically to smartphones, it’s with you - it’s everywhere. You see people at restaurants just sort of picking at their food because they are so involved with their phones.
It’s going to be interesting. I definitely don’t have a solution, but I try to be vigilant. I found this app I like called “Forest”. You basically tell the app how long you don’t want to be bothered and then pick a tree to grow during that time. If you switch away from the app, that tree dies. It’s amazing how out of nowhere, something pops into your head and most of the time you don’t really need to look it up, it’s just your brain wanting to be tickled so you do it to satisfy that. Funny as it may sound, I’m finding the Forest app works for me.
Concert Communicator: Your fans here will take particular interest in the new track "Elegy" , which you wrote shortly after Prince passed. Will you play that song at the Dakota and are you expecting to feel anything different knowing his significance in this town and the fact that he has performed on that very stage?
Ottmar Liebert: We don’t currently play that song in our set because we determined that the song “Butterfly Dream” works out better as an arrangement for the band. Elegy was definitely an emotional song for me and I’m not sure I want to revisit that right now. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize about Prince is that besides being a great producer, singer, you name it – he was also one of the finest guitar players.
Concert Communicator: The material on "Waiting n Swan" is infectious. How did the process of putting your stamp on some of these very recognizable Reggae melodies differ from your normal writing process and was it as rewarding?
Ottmar Liebert: There’s a group of rhythms called Tangos Flamenco that to me always felt similar to Reggae, but I couldn’t never quite figure it out. There’s really no big accent on the 1 count similar to Reggae where you’ve got the famous 1 drop with the kick on 2 and 4, which is where you typically find the snare.
I looked into it a little bit and historians say the rhythm that became Tangos Flamenco and also became Rumba was brought to Spain by sailors from the Caribbean. So there’s Caribbean, Salsa, Reggae – same kind of thing. So the origin of all those rhythms is probably somewhere in Africa. It was brought to the Caribbean from Africa by slave traders and in Jamaica became Reggae, in Cuba it became Salsa, in Spain it became Tangos and Rumba. Spanish immigrants ending up in Argentina turned it into Tango there.
What I found most fascinating is that people always think that things grow up in isolation, that there is such a thing as purity. They look at Jazz as being this uniform thing and the same with Flamenco. The truth is that Flamenco is at least three different branches - Arabic music, Spanish folklore rhythms and Caribbean rhythms.
Overall, I thought this experiment was really interesting because it highlights that there isn’t just one thing. Usually we get these amazing art forms by combining a bunch of stuff. There’s nothing for musicians as interesting as hearing some approach that is really different. For example, you have all these British 60’s and 70’s Blues bands as a result of hearing Blues for the first time from America and then they turned it into something a little different, European Blues. It’s really the same thing with most art forms, when you look at the cuisine you get in most modern restaurants, it is an incredible mix of what we call California cuisine, which is actually a mix of Italian, Spanish, French, Mexican, Asian and a bunch of other things.
So that’s why I did the album, to express those rhythms on the guitar. I knew how to play Tangos obviously because it is a Flamenco rhythm, but I wanted to figure out ways to play the Reggae parts and it was a lot of fun and actually ended up working out really well. The Cajon, which is the Flamenco drum box, played the Tangos rhythm and the drum kit played the Reggae rhythm. You can hear the two fit together perfectly.
At first I was wondering if I should write some original stuff or use some covers to make my point. I’m a huge fan of Bob Marley and I discovered by asking people that everybody has a favorite song of his. I also remembered from my travels that it doesn’t matter where you are, you can happen upon a Bob Marley sticker in a cab or somewhere in the market. I realized his music would be a perfect example for this project, especially since they are songs so many people know. I am especially happy with the arrangement for “Waiting in Vain”, which I think came out great.
Concert Communicator: According to the Lester DeVoe Guitars website, your 2002 DeVoe Flamenco Negra has been used on all your recordings since 2004. Was that also the case with these 2 latest projects and how important is that instrument to your sound?
Ottmar Liebert: It was and that’s a true statement, but the last two albums were done with a 2004 DeVoe Blanca. I still have the 2002 Negra that’s made from Rosewood, which is a darker wood hence referred to as Negra by Flamenco players. Rosewood has a beautiful rich tone, but because it is more elastic tends to get damaged much easier from humidity. A couple of cracks developed in mine, so for the last 3 years or so I have been touring and recording with my Blanca while that was getting fixed. It has a cedar top and cypress sides and back, hence it’s called Blanca.
The reason Flamenco guitars traditionally have always been made from cypress with cedar tops, is because cypress used to be ubiquitous in Spain and was inexpensive and light. Flamenco guitar players used to primarily be the accompanist for a singer or dancer and would often stand behind them, so the guitars had to be really light and really loud – and they are.
So I’ve just gotten used to playing this Blanca and I really love the way it sounds. For “Waiting n Swan” and “Slow”, that’s the only guitar I played. The luthier I work with in Santa Fe whose a friend actually did some experimentation on different types of wood subjecting them to various levels of humidity and the cypress has a little more give than the hardwoods, which drip much faster.
Concert Communicator: I enjoyed reading the "Letter to a Young Musician" entries on your website. What led to the inspiration behind documenting and sharing this valuable insight and what would you like to see come out of it?
Ottmar Liebert: It was inspired by a meeting at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, where quite a few scientists and poets got together. One person who had a literary magazine proposed the idea of having me write a few articles for it online and we came up with the title together. It was fun to just explore what a person might need to hear or what would be informative that they wouldn’t normally think of. The ability to wait, for example is something you wouldn’t realize we end up doing a lot of.
I also think it is incredibly important to understand the value of practice. With practice, we can move something outside of our head into our body. The New York Times had an article years ago about our second brain. They were referring to our intestines having so many nerves in them that they were calling it the gut brain, the secondary brain because it could respond to life energy, the Chinese idea of Qi (or Chi), they call it the Hara in Japan. We just say go with your gut. What’s your gut feeling about this? In order to get it into your gut you have to do the practice so it gets out of your head and it becomes something we can just do. Dancers call it muscle memory. It can be a very similar thing for music. Sometimes I think to myself, I have no idea how I’m going to play this next melody that’s coming up and then my fingers will do it because I’ve played it a bunch of times and I’ve practiced it.
I think that happens for all of us, there are so many things we can just do, but it’s through practice that we learned it. That brings up another problem the internet has created. It’s sending the message that you don’t need to play guitar or another instrument. You just depend on some software that has all the loops you ever wanted and it picks different things for you to create a piece of music. With this approach, you actually miss the whole experience and end up with something that has no feeling.
Concert Communicator: The Minneapolis date is the last listing on your tour schedule. Is there a plan for what's next and what might fans anticipate from you down the road?
Ottmar Liebert: I will be heading home to work on a new album that’s going to involve the band again. I’ve written maybe about half of it and I’ve only just started recording. I believe our West Coast tour starts end of August and goes usually a little longer, about 5 or 6 weeks. Later fall we usually do Florida and Texas and places like that in the South. So that’s what the rest of my year looks like.
Don't miss this chance to see Ottmar Liebert perform live, June 5th at Dakota Jazz Club. For quick access to tickets, follow this link.