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The Good, The True and The Beautiful: A Conversation with Ottmar Liebert

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

“Doesn’t everyone love trains?” World music virtuoso and world traveler Ottmar Liebert poses the rhetorical question, talking excitedly about his favorite mode of travel. The multi-Grammy nominated artist grew up across the river from the Cologne, Germany train station, the sound of the train whistle and the mystique of faraway places always nearby. “I never 100% identified with the German traditional experience; I was always interested in other cultures, and around age 16 I stopped going on the family vacations and started hitchhiking, taking trains. I slept in the bushes, under the Champs Elysees in Paris, and eventually took the Trans-Siberian across the then Soviet Union.”

Travels throughout Asia brought exotic sights, and foreign sounds; Liebert embraced the international dialect of music, spoken world-wide, and understood by all. “When I was in Asia, I brought a guitar. I soon discovered I could always communicate through music, regardless of language differences.”

The instrumental nature of his catalog reflects this unifying aspect of music, without lyrics: “I tried words once,” he recalls, “a Spanish remake of 'Mercy, Mercy Me'. But I found that I don’t like what lyrics do. The brain tries to understand the words, and the focus is shifted from the feeling.”

With 25 instrumental albums conveying his impressions, and a new 5-piece band, Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra come to the BellyUp Aspen this Sunday, August 2. The past year was a prolific one, with three new releases including a musical travel diary, “The Scent of Light”. The album tells the story of specific adventures, special sojourns, by appealing to the different senses. “I gave each song a title connected to places and time…often, it’s music as a smell, that triggers certain memories.”

One such time and place made an indelible impression, and changed his path forever. In 1975, Liebert saw Santana in Cologne. “The opening act was Earth, Wind and Fire! And no one in the audience had ever heard of that band; it was unreal.” About 20 years later, Liebert toured with Santana, and they spoke about the challenges of that early tour; like a bride who picks undeserving bridesmaid dresses, many musicians might pick a weak opening act, to avoid being upstaged. Not Santana. “It really speaks to Santana’s talent, that he opened with Earth Wind and Fire. What a phenomenal double bill!“

Drawn to the American sound early on, Liebert headed to New York City in 1979, on the brink of his 21st birthday. He became a bike messenger, crossing over 6,000 miles a year, while finding time to play in a rock band.

A friend was moving out west, and enlisted him for a cross country road trip from Vermont to Santa Fe. “I fell in love with the landscape. It’s full of promise, and emptiness. You can see for 100 miles off into the distance.” Further, it’s the second largest art market in the US, home to a plethora of high quality movie houses, and an adventurous creativity community, dedicated to cultural fusion and experimentation. He moved there in 1986 and has called Santa Fe home for the past 23 years.

Inspired by his surroundings, Liebert continually experiments within his own art. One of his most recent projects involves a 12,000 dollar German microphone in the shape of a human head, earlobes and all. “It’s called a binaural dummy head recording; with this microphone, the musicians turn left, right, front, back, to achieve a 360 degree sound. “ On 2008’s "Up Close", with just a set of headphones, one can hear the surround sound quality, without the need for a big expensive sound system.

And then there’s the palette. An avid reader, Liebert is on his 5th novel, this year, about Istanbul: “I’m hoping to learn to cook Ottoman and Turkish dishes!”

From revolutionary recordings to the latest in European high speed train travel, innovation and sensation are never far from his passions. “We are naturally drawn to beauty,” he elaborates. “Lots of times what’s most beautiful is most useful, most organic - the good, the true and the beautiful.”

The train whistle blows on 2002’s “In the Arms of Love: Lullabies 4 Children and Adults”, inviting the listener aboard, down through the memories, from one track to the next.

Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra play BellyUp Aspen on Sunday, August 2. 970-544-9800, More Info at Bellyupaspen.com