New Millennium Guitar: Review & Interview

» 02 July 2008 » In Interviews »

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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