Impure, and Proud of It

There are more than a few flamenco purists out there who have stopped just short of demanding the head of Ottmar Liebert on a silver platter. It's out of jealousy, of course. Liebert, after all, has done a remarkable job of taking the musical essence of Santa Fe, New Mexico, his adopted hometown, and dispersing its mariachi and flamenco traditions to a wide audience.

Born in Cologne, Germany, to a Chinese-German father and a Hungarian mother, Liebert began studying guitar at the age of 11. After finishing school he traveled around Europe and Asia and finally came to the States, ending up in Boston. In the mid-'80s, he was a bicycle delivery boy by day and leader of the funk-metal band RED at night. When the band died, Liebert moved to Santa Fe, where he found his destiny with a $100 acoustic guitar. He began to play a different style of music at restaurants and self-released Marita: Shadows and Storms; he pressed 1,000 copies, half of which he handed out for free.

That led to good word of mouth, which in turn led to a remastered version of Liebert's self-released effort, courtesy of new age label Higher Octave. Rechristened Nouveau Flamenco, the CD stayed in Billboard's New Age top ten for a year and a half, ultimately selling more than a million copies. Liebert's next release, 1992's Solo Para Ti, featured several musical duets with Carlos Santana and solidified Liebert's standing.

Through it all, Liebert doesn't claim to be what he is not: a flamenco purist. His style of acoustic music fuses pop sensibility and clean melodic lines to more traditional musical sources with a deceptive grace. Borrasca, recorded by Liebert and his band, Luna Negra, earned the musician a Grammy nomination. (Luna Negra -- Jon Gagan on bass and Dave Bryant on drums -- have been a constant presence since Liebert's musical transformation from funk-metal frontman to flamenco-pop instrumentalist.) The Hours Between Day and Night sent critics scrambling for a new phrase to describe Liebert; what they came up with was the haltingly simplistic "grunge-menco."

Those who would call him the Engelbert Humperdinck of the genre seethe with envy, but Liebert laughs all the way to the top of the new age charts. And now with his most recent release, Leaning into the Night, he's taking on new ground. His first foray into classical music features interpretations of works by Puccini, Ravel, Satie, Mompou and Villa-Lobos as well as five of Liebert's own compositions. Deftly arranged, Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" breathes with a relaxed treatment; "Secreto," a reworking for piano of Federico Mompou's "Impresiones Intimas," delights in its new clothes. Curiously enough, fronting a 70-piece orchestra is where Liebert, a magnetic personality who has been unafraid to bask in the spotlight, seems most at home.

-- Brendan Doherty

Ottmar Liebert performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, September 16, at Cullen Auditorium, University of Houston, exit no. 1 off Calhoun. Tickets are $24.50 to $32. For info, call 869-TICS.

Badfinger -- Be forewarned. This '90s trio version of Badfinger has only a little to do with the original quartet, whose stable of early '70s hits drew frequent comparisons to the Beatles. The only human link between the two groups is guitarist Joey Molland, who joined Badfinger in 1969 and stayed on through its 1975 breakup. Molland was present throughout the group's various commercial peaks ("Come and Get It," "No Matter What," "Day After Day") and valleys (almost everything thereafter), so he does retain some right to the band's legacy. Colorful, dry-witted and deeply proud of his contribution to the band, Molland would seem the likely choice to carry the torch, especially considering that chief songwriter Pete Hamm isn't alive to insist otherwise. And you could easily argue that one Badfinger is better than none. At 5 p.m. Thursday, September 11, at Party on the Plaza, Jones Plaza. Free. Trish Murphy opens. 693-2960. (Hobart Rowland)

Warren Hill -- While many of his contemporaries insist on clinging to the word "jazz" to describe their instrumental funk and rhythm- and-blues-based excursions, Warren Hill admits that a more apt term is "pop instrumentals." Hill's clean-cut sax playing certainly owes more to Junior Walker than to John Coltrane, and his bluesy riffing over happy funk grooves at times sounds much like David Sanborn. But where Sanborn might do an old standard such as "Willow Weep for Me" as a nod to his jazz roots, Hill embraces pop all the way, doing party-down sax instrumentals of "Hey Jude" and "Roxanne." On his new release, Shelter, Hill has even taken on the role of sensitive pop balladeer. Although Michael Bolton doesn't have anything to worry about, Hill is nevertheless a respectable singer in the Bolton mold. At 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, September 12, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $17.50 to $29. 869-TICS. (Mark Towns


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Brendan Doherty
Hobart Rowland
Mark Towns