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New Millennium Guitar: Review & Interview

» 02 July 2008 » In Interviews » No Comments

A Review of Ricardo Cobo’s Naxos Release
“Latin American Guitar Music” CD

When Michael Lawrence, maker of the new documentary Aaron Shearer: A Life with the Guitar, explained to me that Mr. Shearer told him he left out two things in his film, one of those things was Ricardo Cobo. Mr. Shearer said that Cobo was possibly his best student.

I would think that most of us have heard of Ricardo Cobo but as far as I’m concerned there are many guitarists that are better known that are not his equal. What can I say but he is one of my favorite guitarists of all time.

I have never heard a recording that so mated all components, the player/material, guitar, space and engineer/producer than Latin American Guitar Music performed by Cobo on Naxos.

It is so well paced and naturally flowing that I have have no reservation saying that it is in my top five CDs of all time.

Cobo is so naturally intertwined with the music that it is his. His arrangements of Piazzolla’s “La muerte del angel” and “Primavera portena” are the best I’ve heard. His playing of them is better than I have ever heard from an expressive point of view. The arrangements are powerful and full, complete and idiomatic.

I always look for some mistake or mishandling in everyone but Cobo. In “La muerte del angel” there is one thing that could be a tempo “problem” into a new section but it quickly gets absorbed into the fabric of rightness. My only, “sort of,” complaint.

In performing Latin American music you can be suave, schmaltzy and a highly sentimental, you can be bawdy, sexy and muscular, not necessarily in any order or combination.

There is something spiritual about Cobo’s performance of this music and it surpasses the above qualities into the sublime. He has lived with it so long that he has merged with it and there is no great quality that stands out except perfection. Technique becomes something superfluous as it too is absorbed into the fabric of rightness.

When Cobo performs contemporary Latin American guitar music he is the most profoundly in his element. Tracks 12 through 14 are “Elegia por muerte de un tanguero” by Maximo Diego Pujol, a wonderful composer/performer. As well track 6, “Stella australis,” is Pujol’s.

As well track 6, “Stella australis,” is Pujol’s. Track 7 “Milonga del viento” by Jorge Morel is so beautiful that it is tearful and it takes a lot for a guy like me to say this. Also track 9, “Little Rhapsody” and track 10, “Danza in E minor,” Morel’s are so fine as compositions and Cobo knows how to bring their qualities out.

Morel has also contributed an arrangement of Horacio Salgan’s “Don Agustin Bardi” performed so sweetly by Cobo. Cobo’s handling of the lyrical breathes in vocal style.

All will recognize Cobo’s arrangement of “El Chocolo” by Angel Villoldo. Both this cut and the above one would really work well coupled for a nice example of the dance aspect of Latin American music.

Track 8, Milonga Oriental, by Abel Carlevaro (1952-2001) is a beautiful composition and is the first recording I’ve heard. As well performed by Cobo as only he can. Can I say swashbuckly? There is a certain verve that Cobo has that reminds me of Rudolf Valentino playing a pirate.

As well I am very happy to listen to Marco Pereira’s “Marta.” He is also a composer/performer of equal skill as Pujol and should be well known. Cobo looks at a beautiful piece like this as Chopin would with the characteristic improvisory flow of time.

Track 2, “Se ela preguntar” and 3 “Promessa,” by Dilermando Reis (1916-1977) like Pereira’s are playful with the tempo. Cobo’s feeling is uncanny, for what some of us call schmaltz but be careful and don’t be cynical. It is the same on track 11, Leo Brouwer’s “Un dia de Noviembre” and it seems like he’s reached a profound moment with the music like when you’ve seen something too beautiful.

Yeah Dude, like I said, we’re always looking for mistakes of technique or expression. You can easily leave that expectation at the door of this CD.

There are no highlights on this CD that isn’t personal taste as in my over appreciation for living composers that are younger than me and high romance in beautiful music.

The separation of the voices on the guitar is astonishing and this may be what I like most about Cobo’s playing. He really flushes the voices out of a person’s composition and leaves his imprint! As I said earlier, the poet Cobo absorbs the virtuoso Cobo. It’s a good thing.

I asked Ricardo a few questions starting with the genesis of this particular CD:

The germ for the Latin CD came from a concert program of Latin American “standards” -arrangements and guitar originals. I played the program in a couple Festivals in Germany and a big chamber fest in Colorado. It was a huge hit-I was honestly surprised.

“The concept is nothing new, but presenting this type of music at a very high level was- I think labels are really starting to capitalize in Latin markets with Latino performers right now. Ironically, I’m playing music that comes very naturally to me and I’m learning to arrange and play this stuff with the same level of excellence and soul as the best concert music that I grew up studying in school. I’ve arranged and learned dozens of well-known tunes for concert programs last year. NAXOS liked the music but wanted me to mix and match with more “serious” music from living composers. There is only so much you can squeeze into a CD. So the music is now divided into three volumes.”

“Originally, I was going to go with my old label, but they wanted very traditional stuff: all- Coste, all-Sor, all-Albeniz, all-Bach (will the guitar world ever get a clue?) I just can’t fathom spending another week of my life recording Sor and Albeniz. I turned it down and went somewhere else.”

“I received a small grant from a Patron in Colombia who was determined to capture the soul of Latin tunes on the guitar. They asked me to record “music that speaks from the soul and intimate personal experience.” When NAXOS heard this demo they asked me to record it for them on the spot. I flew to Toronto in the winter. Norbert and I sat down for three days of takes and an extra day for overlap, in case we wanted to change the program around. The music just rolled out night after night. It was freezing cold outside and snowing incessantly while I was there. Quartz heater next to my chair, two microphones and a thermos of coffee. That’s how it went down. We tried several different program orders. They felt Piazzolla should book-end the program for this CD.”

Also, I was interested in the guitar played on this recording:
“The guitar is a 1998 Cedar Millennium. Not ringed like a Smallman, but latticed through the lower half of the soundboard with a diamond-shaped design made of cedar braces. Humphreys are not made from pre-cut molds, so the width of the sides, soundboard slope, fingerboard angle and rollover are all different. This guitar is not particularly even in its sound or color. However, its full of idiosyncracies, sonorities and details that give it its magical qualities. There is a learning curve involved in ‘memorizing’ the scale print if you’re used to an even-response guitar.”

The space of recording is well know as the Naxos guitar series room:
“St. John Chrysostom in Newmarket. Its a contemporary fan-shaped space. Brick, glass, metal and lots of wood. 40 ft-High ceilings, healthy space and very positive energy.”

“Norbert Kraft, who engineered the project, had asked me to simply play through full movements and avoid the step-by-step editing that goes along with very clinical and accurate recordings. We wanted to breathe and stretch the innate elasticity in a lot of this music rather than paste a note-perfect CD. I hope the risk pays off. We aslo opted to play in a large space without any reverb or postproduction. What you hear is what went down on that day.”

“The mics are Neumann UM-87 with Klaus pre’s. I don’t know about the cables or the console- Norb has those custom-made somewhere in Holland.”

Since I saw you at GFA 2001, what has been happening in your career?
“In the days right before the 9-11 Attack, I was very uneasy about Fall tour. My manager had cancelled several venues for lack of contracts and organizational blunders all around. Since that day, life has changed in many ways. I value my time and whom I spend it with. I’ve had serious travel problems since 9-11- visa delays and denials, searches, cancelled flights, and a lot of running around between immigration offices around the west Coast. I’ve been stranded outside the U.S. for weeks at a time. Finally I just made a decision to travel only when absolutely necessary. I hand-pick everything I do these days and I try to keep my traveling to a minimum.”

“After GFA ’01, I disconnected from the usual concert politik. The rewards didn’t really make up for the grueling wear and tear of concert life, and playing for guitar Festivals got old- not my idea of a good time. I’d rather stay home and ride 50 miles through Red Rock Canyon on my bike.”

“Nowadays I train intensely with my partner. We’re building a core life, and focusing on the things that bring us closer to a high quality of life. We both teach; I record quite often now, and I’ve started to arrange and compose every day. As a composer, I know you understand the nature of that need. I still practice 40 hours a week, learning and studying new music daily. My playing gets better every season.”

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Guitarra Magazine

» 02 July 2008 » In Interviews » No Comments

In this interview Ricardo Cobo shares his views about the guitar, whre it is, where is going to and also gives us a brief insight about this future projects.

GUITARRA MAGAZINE: Coming from Colombia, a culture so different from that of the U.S., how did you become interested in the classical guitar?

RICARDO COBO: Before I played guitar, I was already immersed in the piano by the time I was six years old. My mother, a terrific pianist, loved music and instilled in me a fascination for music as far back as I can remember. Colombia’s “culture” was quite different when I was growing up. It was more deeply rooted in European and Iberian traditions than American culture. Hence, the only existing music schools or conservatories were patterned after traditional European-French models complete with solfège, theory, ensemble, and lots of one-to-one lessons. In addition to my studies in the Conservatory, I was also attending a bilingual high school, which had no real music program.

In Colombia however, the environment was quite tropical. “Serious” music was constantly competing and mixing with native and regional music, which really dominated the airwaves. Cali, after all, was called “the capital of salsa”. The wealth of regional music included cumbia, vallenato, musica del llano, traditional trio, tango viejo, trova cubana, and a fascinating diversity of native instrumental and vocal songbooks. The guitar was a central player in this melting pot, but it had never become a solo instrument per se.

GM: Whom did you study with before moving to the U.S.?

RC: My first guitar teacher was Alvaro Ramirez Alvarez, a guitarist/arranger and composer who still lives in Cali. He taught me the ropes of basic flamenco rhythm and picado when I was about 7. I studied theory, arranging, and ensemble with Ciceron Marmolejo, a very colorful musician and arranger who was well known in the Cali “ambiente bohemio”.

Simultaneously, I enrolled in the City music Conservatory and worked with Luis Alfonso Castillo, a talented guitarist who spent many years studying in Spain, Germany and Holland. I was deeply involved with guitar methods and traditional repertory during this time. I also worked privately and in many classes with the late Abel Carlevaro and Miguel Angel Guirollet. All in all, this ten-year stretch was a very rich and unique period of lessons for me. I remember it fondly.

GM: What is the future of classical music in Colombia? Does the political struggle of the country directly affect the development of the arts?

RC:Many people ask the same question about classical music in America. I think the future is uncertain for “classical” music in general, but that is a discussion for another time. Colombia’s political and social struggle has affected and dramatically altered the direction and long-term survival of classical arts. Colombia has a central Ministry of Culture, which distributes moneys for arts organizations. Traditionally, orchestras, conservatories and museums are supported and run by the state, which places individuals from the governing parties in power; often, individuals who have limited or no musical training in the arts or arts management.

In addition, Colombia’s very bloody war on terrorism has taxed the country to such a degree that any arts-sponsored entity has undoubtedly felt a serious loss in funding across the board. Our current president continues to raise taxes to fight the guerillas, and the citizenry has felt these tough demands. As you know, Colombia battles for survival in a continuous state of emergency, and the arts are the first casualties of war. It has taken miraculous self-sacrifice and personal courage for individuals who love the arts to stay alive and work in Colombia today. On the other hand, there are more college students today (such as yourself) who study applied music and pursue postgraduate study than at any other time in history. This surge in interest and awareness can only be good for the future of music in Colombia.

GM: Is there anything in particular that we can do in order to promote the growth of classical guitar, not only in South America but in a global fashion?

RC: I think the guitar is in a uniquely positive place at the beginning of this millennium. The music industry is having serious growing pains keeping up with the wild frontier of the digital era. I think guitar has to move out of its “classical” box in order for it to participate more fully in the mainstream. I realize this idea may not jibe with many traditional classical players, but I think it’s time people realize they have to embrace the wild variety of music from around the planet and present it to the public with the same conviction and level of excellence as the brightest stars in the classical world have done all along. There are far too many “career guitarists” today trying to squeeze into a shrinking box of vanishing venues. There are dozens of chops-driven, cookie-cutter young bloods who play for each other in the same festivals and competitions and criticize each other to oblivion. This insular and self-perpetuating environment may exist in academia but has no meaning to the public at large. While this multiplicity of talent is exciting and fun to witness, I believe true musical creativity and adaptability far outside of this box will rule the day.

GM: Why did you choose to move to the US in particular?

RC: I came to the United States over twenty years ago to go to college; in particular, to study with Aaron Shearer and later with Bruce Holzman. I felt the U.S. offered the most advanced and comprehensive training for a musician, not just in classical music. As for my teachers in the U.S., I was looking for a proven pedagogue, not necessarily a player whom I wanted to emulate. Often, the greatest teachers are not well-known players themselves but possess the rich experience of working with many uniquely talented musicians.

GM: How was the experience of studying with two of the world’s leading pedagogues, maestros Aaron Shearer and Bruce Holzman?

RC: My experience with these two marvelous and different teachers was life-changing, profoundly enlightening, and rewarding well into my professional career. I was fortunate to meet Shearer at a time when he was completely devoted to his teaching and writing. He was easily the most generous, articulate, pragmatic, and consistently challenging teacher I had met. His deep knowledge of the guitar and how it worked is daunting. His method and the bar he set were unyielding and exhaustive. He was a true guru or “Yoda” in his field. Regardless of the criticism you may hear, this man was the genuine article, and passionate about his work to boot.

When I worked with Holzman, he too was completely devoted to his students and present in countless ways. I believe I was the first “Shearer school” player to cross lines to study with Holzman. I can tell you I had a blast making music during my lessons. He was the most meticulous, fastidious, and analytical coach I had ever encountered. I grew enormously as musician and performer at FSU. I am deeply grateful to Bruce in every regard.

GM: Please tell us about your experience living in New York City in contrast with life in other US cities. Is there a larger demand for the classical guitar there?

RC: I moved to NYC in 1990 after competing intensely for years and finishing doctoral work at FSU. I had lived in the lazy heat of the Deep South for 5 healthy and productive years. Tallahassee was a wonderful and peaceful place to train, practice and study. I always felt that if I had a choice, I would like to live in NY because of the demand and level of classical music in general (I was young and naive, after all). It would be difficult not to express excitement and fascination with a city which had become synonymous with the best and the brightest in the arts. That is no longer the case, of course, and NYC for all of its greatness is also one of the most difficult, complex, expensive, cynical, unhealthy and neurotic cities in the U.S. I really don’t think there is more demand for classical guitar there currently. If anything, there is less opportunity and infinitely more competition at every level of music. NYC has always had a love-hate dynamic with everyone who lives and works there.

I lived in a brownstone in Hell’s Kitchen for nearly ten years. I recorded for different labels in the city, toured non-stop, arranged and recorded jingles and commercial spots, performed locally, taught privately, and made a very lucrative and successful career on my own terms. But it came at a price–personal, physical and financial. I wanted to disconnect and take a breather to pursue other interests and regain my quality of life. I moved to Las Vegas shortly before 2000, and I wouldn’t move back for all the money in Wall Street.

GM: Are you presently teaching through the University of Nevada, Las Vegas? How are your students coming along?

RC: I have one graduate student enrolled at UNLV this year. To be honest, institutional teaching has been less than rewarding both financially and personally for me. In order to build a department realistically anywhere and devote heart and mind to teaching, one would have to reduce performing and recording substantially as well as deal with a tsunami of university politics and red tape for surprisingly little money. This, I’m not ready to do. I have far too many interests beyond the guitar to justify working in this environment full-time.

I much prefer teaching privately and on my own terms. I have many out-of-town students who commute and several professional players who work with me regularly. My private students in Las Vegas are a joy and have been with me for several years now.

GM: Please tell us about the new recordings that you did recently. Will they be released anytime soon?

RC: I’m currently recording for commercial projects and a variety of high-end instrumental mixes. As for my guitar recordings, NAXOS, with whom I’ve worked in the past (Brouwer-Guitar Music Vol.1), has released my new CD of Latin American standards for solo guitar this fall (CD# 8.5573.29) . I’ve also just recorded another CD of guitar and flute music with Alexandra Hawley for release next year, and I’ll record another CD of traditional South American classics in January for a summer release. The latter will be available at: buythiscd.com

GM: What are your future plans and projects?

RC: Recording takes an enormous amount of time, energy, detailed labor and constant reassessment. I’m dedicating a lot of time to recording and producing in ’04. I’m working on an interesting mix of traditional classical chamber music CDs of Paganini, Beethoven and Bocherini and also arranging and producing a program for a mixed Middle Eastern CD where I play oud, guitar and requinto. Later in the year I’ll record another Latin CD of Colombian and Venezuelan solo music. In a slightly different focus, we are also organizing the first Las Vegas classical guitar and fitness camp for next fall. In the meantime, I’d like to climb Telescope Peak(11,100ft), ride the 67-mile salt-flats track in Death Valley, and ride the 27-mile Arches trail in Moab as well as ride 100 mi. in next year’s “Tour de Tucson”. Other than that, good wine, good friends and lots of practicing and hiking.  

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Classical Guitar Magazine

» 25 June 2008 » In Interviews » No Comments

Interviewed by JULIA CROWE

RICARDO COBO describes his present hometown in Las Vegas as a competitive environment, yet he finds that the challenge, along with the climate, suits him. If you take a look at Cobo’s overall career trajectory, it’s clear that he has never been shy about laying down a solid foundation while maintaining the intent to carve out his own path.

‘The guitar scene in Cali was small,’ he says. ‘It was small then and still is now, so I decided to study in the United States. The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore was my first choice because I wanted to study with a recognized teacher like Aaron Shearer, whom I eventually followed to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. I had an F-l visa at the time which allowed me to remain in the US as a student. After I finished my graduate and Doctoral work with Bruce Holzman I was awarded an “Extraordinary ability” Visa which enabled me to work and perform freely.’Cobo began his studies at the Antonio Maria Valencia Conservatory in Colombia when he was 13 years old and recalls taking a class from Abel Carlevaro in Bogota.

‘As a young teenager I was really taken by Carlevaro. He turned musical study into a science with an approach that said if you did the sum ‘a + b’ then you would get ‘c’. I was fascinated with how he had organized teaching into a graded method. At that age, I wasn’t focused on sound quality or emotion but rather on learning basic technique and he gave me much hope. What Carlevaro offered was a reasonable alternative to the prevalent notion at the time, which was, you’d better play like Segovia or else you’re screwed. He created a method to help musicians become competent without injury.

‘Later when I studied with Aaron Shearer, I learned to develop sound, musical ideas, and a solid technique based on proven principles. The objective here was flawless phrasing, even temperament, legato playing and consistency. These two teaching styles complimented each other. ‘

Cobo eventually moved to a brownstone apartment shared by four other musicians in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York, where he lived for ten years while entering and winning several major competitions in Europe: the San Juan, the Tarrega, the GFA and the Alirio Diaz Competition in Venezuela, to name a few. During this time he also worked as a studio musician in New York throughout the ’90s at the Essay and Angel labels doing jazz and jingle work.

‘I’ve found that work in New York tends to be won more by word-of-mouth and heavy lobbying,’

Classical Guitar Magazine

Ricardo Cobo.

Cobo explains. ‘While Vegas is straight-up and commercial-it’s about your ‘look’ and what you can do on the spot, live and in the studio.’

Cobo recorded an album of Leo Brouwer’s Guitar Concertos, Concierto Elegiaco and Concerto de Toronto for the Essay label, followed by Leo Brouwer, Guitar Music, Vol. 1 (Naxos).
‘I was fascinated by Brouwer’s work as a teenager, absolutely taken by it. I learned nearly everything he had published and eventually met him as an adult in Caracas while competing in the Diaz competition in 1990. We became fast friends. For anyone to deny his importance as a composer for the guitar, I would say is absurd. His music was idiomatically groundbreaking and innovative, but it sounds traditional compared to what you hear today.’

Determined ‘not to wind up in the Heifitz cookie cutter mold or classical music mothball box,’ Cobo worked at the Shakespeare Festival in Utah, performed at several private parties in Las Vegas and decided to leave New York altogether.

‘My decision to move to Las Vegas was based on the wish to get away from the crazy purist attitude inside classical music and the perception of the guitar. Las Vegas is relatively new to the classical guitar, and because entrenched perceptions of the instrument do not exist there, I knew I could build a lot of interest for guitar. Initially, what really pushed me to move was the endless beauty of places like Zion, Bryce, Escalante and Red Rock. Being in touch with these magical places has changed my quality of life,’ Cobo says emphatically.

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If it took a few East Coast card sharps to turn a railyard worker’s gambling ditch into a multimillion dollar glittering gaming paradise, smack in the middle of a desert, Cobo is clearly intent on applying his own business savvy here to increase the profile of the guitar. You won’t find him replacing Roy Horn at the Mirage club any time soon, or fending off nearly extinct white tigers and snow leopards with the broad side of his guitar; however you will find him playing corporate gigs In-between running numerous recording studio projects.

‘All the industry conventions pass through Las Vegas. You name It: automobile. electronics, hotels, the adult film industry… For example, I played a Spanish program for executives of La Quinta Inns.’

If you’re curious to know what program he played at the adult film industry convention, Cobo’s quick response is, ‘Tangos.’
‘Bill Gates had Sting come to his house and paid him £500,000 to play three songs. You see this in Vegas all the time. If the opportunity is there for me, 1 take it and the best part is that I get to introduce my music to an appreciative audience and have them walk away thinking about the guitar in a new light. I playa wide variety of gigs in town and classical music is not a priority. It’s the level of awareness that I’m determined to raise,’ he says.

Comparing the music scene in Las Vegas to downloading music on the Internet, Cobo adds. ‘People want fast, easy access and loud music right now. Classical music represents the antithesis of this. Guitar is still the cool, Latin and exotic instrument you hear at smaller gatherings. Listening to guitar on your iPod is an even more intimate affair. Regardless of where you play, quality is something you have to maintain yourself – it’s something you learn from having worked on the East Coast.’

Cobo’s unique approach landed him a lucrative opportunity to make a children’s music CD, Guitar Lullaby (Ellipses Arts), which was first marketed through the Gaiam/Harmony mail order catalogs. purveyors of new age spiritual and environmentally-sound products. The album quickly won a slew of awards from the American Library Association to Parents’ Choice Awards to a mention from Gramophone magazine for being one of the finest new classical recordings.

‘When Ellipsis Arts approached me about doing this project, I Initially had some trepidation. They asked me to create an album with various songs and traditional lullabies. They put a lot more care Into the production than any other recording project I’ve worked on, providing an acoustician and a music therapist who specialized in children. It was an elaborate process and turned into a best-selling album:

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It is with little surprise that Guitar Lullaby inc!udes Sergio Assad’s Morning’s Rag from his Children’s Cradle Suite, Leo Brouwer’s Berceuse, Un Amor de Valsa by Paulo Bellinatl and Sunday Morning Overcast by Andrew York, among other pieces, proving that Cobo is determined to Inject intelligence into a commercial format.

‘I love the stage but In a different way than most. I do not want to spend thirty years playing perfect concerts of museum music for other guitarists In perfect halls. I want to write, arrange and record original music with other amazing musicians and perform in a variety of venues including the web. It’s my belief the classical music environment has to change or else It’s going to be pushed Into an even smaller slot than it is already.

‘I caught a clip of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on the television programme, The Charlie Rose Show, where he said, ‘Music is people: Music Is the echo of the poetry of the struggle people go through every day. Classical music can be done well in many unusual settings if It Is presented properly and allows you to reinvent yourself. Today, pop culture is winning. Mediocrity and spin captures the spotlight. I am not sure what the answer to this conundrum Is, but one of my goals is to remedy this by repackaging and re-recording traditional music: Cobo Is currently focusing on performing works by younger Cuban, Venezualan, Caribbean, Colombian composers such as, Eduardo Martin, Harold Gramatges. El Indio Figueredo. Gentll Montana, Alejandro Wills, Juan Vicente Torrealba, and Rafael Olmos. Some are original pieces for guitar, but with composers like Figueredo, Wills, and Torrealba, Cobo has transcribed from folk harp. He is also looking into transcribing works for guitar from unique and historical 18th and 19th-century Colombian piano pieces.

He is currently recording a variety of music and preparing three albums for release next year (label information will be forthcoming.)

One album is of Cuban music for guitar and percussion with upright bass and includes some Brouwer arrangements that Cobo says have never been previously performed.
‘The second album is of traditional repertoire, my father’s favourite music: the kind of pieces you play at your first recital, like Barrios, VillaLobos. I plan to release It before Father’s Day:
His third album will consist of ensemble music with the guitar, saxophone, violin and flute and will include Cobo’s own arrangements and original tunes with the tango and bandoleon on some tracks.

These days Cobo is teaching privately and offers short consultations, which is as much as his busy recording schedule will allow. When asked about how he developed his dynamic, powerhouse playing style, he says, ‘I’m not a Weak personality. I’m intense and present. I cannot help but be whom I am – it’s genetic and in my soul. I have to connect with something greater than my guitar.

‘It becomes a real drag to play perfect concerts and by that I mean perfect notes. That was a 70s aspiration – to play perfectly all the time. The real goal is to connect and share and communicate a joyful version of life, to bring awareness and elevation. So for this reason, I am not into academic playing. Sometimes people become ‘professional’ students, which means they’re great at copying music. Great artists do their own thing and put out something special.

‘Aaron Shearer taught me how to control my playing and achieve a standard that would allow me to perform at a high level consistently. From Bruce, I learned how to do something special with the music and connect it to the beauty of living. My whole life I’ve wanted to be on stage and convey the joy of playing. I get a good deal of satisfaction from not hiding behind the guitar, while at the same time not letting ego and vanity get in way.’

In the middle of this interview Cobo had to answer the door to sign for a delivery from Colombia. Between the sounds of wrapping paper tearing away, I heard him exclaim, ‘This is so good-my mother just sent me one of my uncle’s paintings.’
‘My uncle was a wonderful painter who studied architecture during WW II. I grew up seeing his paintings around the house and the images never left me. They were just emblazoned on my mind. Having spent precious time with him as a kid, I learned I had a talent for painting. When he died, he left his work in the family. My mother has just airmailed me this large painting from Colombia. It’s of a bullfighter fighting in the ring. I love to paint and studied graphic design myself, along with computer graphics. Painting and playing compliment each other in profound ways.’

Our conversation veers to the buzz surrounding Tom Humphrey’s distinctive painted guitar, which Cobo played at the Mannes New York Guitar Seminar this past summer.

‘Humphrey has always struck me for his remarkable vision and conviction about guitars. I own three of his Milleniums, which all have powerful sustain, focus and projected sound. With Tom, it’s not about how accurately you play his guitar but what you do with the palette of sound and how you manage all the machinations of colour. You find that what turns you on in terms of complexity, colour and potential is what makes you say, “I can design a better musical line on this instrument’.

‘I find other popular makers of guitar to be very predictable, which is fine if that is what you want. But I enjoy responding to the parameters of the guitar and his are particularly elastic.’
Cobo happily divulges that he has recently married his girlfriend Julie in a ceremony where guests hiked up the scenic Zion Canyon in southern Utah with backpacks in tow. A year ago, they had hiked up this same canyon on a seven to eight hour trek and found themselves lost on a yellow plateau, surrounded by crevasses and two enormous walls, which he describes as being like the Grand Canyon, only a much smaller version.

We made it down to the road in the pitch dark, terrified we’d be jumped by a cougar. We had one torch between us with a dwindling set of batteries.’ he says. Apparently they had both vowed, unknown to each other at that moment, that if they managed to make it back to town alive, they would marry each other.

Since Cobo usually hikes with a Yamaha backpacker and often brings along scores of music that he is either arranging or learning, he probably had less to fear than he might have realized. Perhaps we should reconsider that earlier Roy Horn remark that all it would take to allay any desert cougar would be a Las Vegas pro with a bullfighter’s spirit and some serious lullaby chops, grounded in classical guitar.

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Las Vegas Sun

» 24 November 2006 » In Interviews » No Comments

Colombian leads musical journey across Latin America

By Timothy Pratt

Fri, Nov 24, 2006 (7:05 a.m.)Click here to find out more!

Given today’s climate – when Hispanic in many people’s minds means “Mexican” and Mexican means “illegal” – Colombian guitarist Ricardo Cobo’s sold-out concert Tuesday night at UNLV’s Doc Rando Hall somehow acquired added meaning.

Not that Cobo crafted his nearly all-Latin American program with any stated political intent.

But cultural displays from an artist with the talent and sensibility of the sort Cobo possesses have a way of making a point sometimes, beyond the beauty of the displays themselves.

Cobo – who left his native city of Cali as a teenager and became the first Hispanic to win consecutive prizes at the Guitar Foundation of America International competition – comfortably engaged an audience of 300 on a musical trip from Brazil up to Cuba, with stops in Argentina, Paraguay and Venezuela, and a side trip to France.

The guitarist, who has lived in Las Vegas since 2000, visits his tropical valley birthplace when he can and spends six months a year on the world’s classical music stages. It’s a life that adds up to a performer and person who breathes both U.S. and Latin cultures , and is expert at bridging the two.

From the start, Cobo dipped into the Latin American grab bag of intense emotions, with a lyrical piece by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer that he reprised at the end of the concert, dedicated to his father.

Then he switched things up, announcing, “We’re going to start the dancing part early,” with a fast tune from the Venezuelan plains written for harp. The speed challenged Cobo at times, but the rhythmic force of the piece carried him forward.

Before lovingly launching into “Dos Valsas,” two pretty pieces by Brazilian composer Dilermando Reis, Cobo told the audience they were about to hear “high-class schmaltz.”

He knows how north-of-the-border eyes see the romance in Latin lives.

Then, without being pedantic, he added, “This was before bossa nova, before samba.”

About to tackle Argentine Maximo Diego Pujol’s homage to his radical compatriot, Astor Piazzolla, Cobo noted: “If you don’t know his (Piazzolla’s) music, you’re missing a whole universe of music in the 20th century.”

His right hand, relaxed as a tai chi master, strummed and slapped through the Argentine avant-garde, strongly displaying that country’s melancolia.

After the intermission, Cobo stopped in Cuba with a modern piece by Eduardo Martin that somehow manages to fit the head-bopping Cuban dance rhythm, son guajira, under the same musical roof as dense, contemporary classical flourishes.

“A lot of unusual things have come out of Cuba,” Cobo said before playing the piece, “but we never hear of it.”

After the song, he riffed, “You gotta love the Cubans. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues and all of the above.”

More bridges built.

The rest of the program featured three tangos, all Cobo’s arrangements – including an impressive musical wrestling match with the difficult maestro himself, Piazzolla.

Dressed in black and equally modest in character, Cobo called the piece “a little more virtuosic” than the rest.

But though he had no problem with the technical demands of the complexly urban but lyrical composer, what most reached the listener was Cobo’s feeling for the music.

It was clear the music Cobo played for a full house, from the rich and immensely varied continent of his birth, is in his blood.

And his hands.

 

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