By Bill Milkowski

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: April 1981)

Personnel: John McLaughlin. Al DiMeola, Paco De Lucia, acoustic guitars

Although this summit meeting of international guitar virtuosi was by no means billed as a "Battle Of The Chops", comparisons were inevitable. The crowd clearly had its favorites among England's John McLaughlin, America's Al DiMeola and Spain's Paco De Lucia: the youngish, rock oriented electric guitar contingent shouted its encouragements for DiMeola, the flamenco faction yelled "Bravo, Paco" and old Mahavishnu fans erupted into applause over McLaughlin's etheral flights. The program was arranged to highlight each acoustic master in a solo setting, interspersed with duo collaborations and culminating in the much anticipated three-way jam.
DiMeola was first up on the bill to flaunt his chops, thrilling fans with his lightning fast flurries. His music - a progressive assimilation of Latin, jazz, rock and Baroque strokes - springs from an inventive technique that incorporates alternate up-down flat picking rhythms, the use of four fingers on his left hand for chording and muting with his right palm, fingertip, and fingernail. Although DiMeola's certainly an accomplished technician in this sense, his playing lacked the charm, fluidity and grace that marked both McLaughlin's and De Lucia's playing.
The difference in their three respective styles was even apparent in such subtle cues as body language and posture. Paco was the portrait of studied concentration and pristine perfection: stiff backed and stern faced, with a distinguished air about him that some might misread as haughtiness. He's proud and majestic, like a regal Arabian steed prancing with grace and elegance, yet able to reveal great power.
DiMeola, however, seemed merely stiff. His movements and attacks on his instrument were executed with machine-like precision and carried a hint of calculation. Like a well-trained race horse that flies to the finish line with blinders on. DiMeola seems too focused on the final effect to fully enjoy the "run" itself.
Then there is McLaughlin, hunched over and boppin' in his chair, mugging and grimacing more like Stan Laurel than B.B. King, playing blues-inspired licks. He was loose limbed and fancy free, riding with his music and moving with its spontaneous flow. He's the wild and mischievous mustang, bursting with joy, romping about with no apparent plan or destination, and having a wonderful time along the way.
McLaughlin was clearly the crowds favorite - not because he played the fastest or the best, necessarily, but because he exuded sincere warmth through his playing persona and adventurous nature. In the duets he was the catalyst, always communicating closely with the others through direct eye contact and shouts of encouragement. DiMeola and De Lucia, however, maintained their rather aloof and typically detached perspectives.
Those looking for strictly fast licks missed the point of this concert. All three are known as speed merchants, but what was more impressive in many cases was the sensitivity and masterfully subtle touches that each player threw in between all those blinding flurries. McLaughlin and De Lucia were particularly expressive here.
The collaborations were interesting, if not always successful. De Lucia and DiMeola got together first for some spicy, Spanish sounds. DiMeola is most comfortable in this genre, and the two seemed to work well, although Paco's more polished style made DiMeola's seem blunt by comparison.
McLaughlin and De Lucia melded nicely on the Egberto Gismonti composition "Fravo", arranged for two guitars. This duo seemed to work better, not only because McLaughlin's soloing was more inspired than DiMeola's, but also because he proved to be a better accompanist.
Perhaps the most festive moments came during the collaboration between DiMeola and McLaughlin on Chick Corea's "Short Tales From The Black Forest" (which DiMeola recorded on his debut album "Land of the Midnight Sun" ). It was a fanciful flight, full of levity and packed with improvisational surprises that even had the normally stonefaced DiMeola grinning from ear to ear. It was a comic case of call and response, with each guitarist throwing in witty quips in the form of well known hooklines and campy theme songs. McLaughlin would deviate from the original melody with a taste of "Pink Panther", and DiMeola would quickly counter with "If I Were a Rich Man"; without breaking stride, McLaughlin would come back with "Wheels", and DiMeola would answer with strains of "Pagliacci". They quoted everything, including bits of "Dueling Banjos" and pieces of a 12-bar blues. Their good-natured antics lit up the audience and added more fun to an otherwise dignified affair.
The three guitarists finished together with "Tres Hermanons, Morning Of The Tide" (from "Black Orpheus" ) and a rousing version of Corea's "Spain" (complete with audience participation on the popular handclapped chorus). Although this segment was perhaps the most confining, with each guitarist continually having to step aside to make room for the abbreviated interjections of the others, the crowd was simply agog by the thought of three such accomplished plectrists performing together. They hailed this grande finale and brought the three masters back for an extended encore of McLaughlin's "Meeting Of The Spirits" and DiMeola's "Splendido Sundown".
It was an engaging package that displayed moments of truly inspirational playing (mostly from McLaughlin), but the culmination of three heavyweights jamming it out at the end was a case of too many cooks. Hope for a live LP out soon.