John, Paco and Al

Paco De Lucia

NEW YORK - In 1977, Paco de Lucia did the unthinkable. Going outside the restrictive boundaries of flamenco music, he recorded a track on Al Di Meola's electric LP, Elegant Gypsy. Unheard of for a flamenco guitarist. Many staunch flamenco purists insisted that Paco was defying the age-old, revered tradition of flamenco music. But as Al Di Meola said on Paco's behalf, "He's not leaving flamenco, he's expanding it."

Like other pioneers, while alienating some, his bold new experiments have brought others into the fold. Paco's triumphant tours with John McLaughlin and Di Meola - which yielded 1981's Friday Night In San Francisco (Columbia 37152) and 1983's Passion, Grace & Fire (Columbia 38645) - exposed new audiences to the bravura and majesty of flamenco music, even if the music performed on their tours was not flamenco in the purest sense of the word.
Paco has taken heat for his experimenting with such a rich tradition. Yet, he is always mindful of not straying too far away from the roots. "I cannot do with flamenco all that I should like because then it loses its identity," he said backstage at Carnegie Hall before a performance. "Flamenco is a very old music. It cannot evolve as quickly as, say, jazz has evolved. It has to be a very slow evolution. So I am trying to introduce new things - my feelings and thoughts - but I don't want to lose the tradition, that sound. Flamenco is really a sound more than a music. It's a feeling, an expression. So you can put in the qualities you like, but you have to take care of that message, that sound."
Born in 1947 in Algeciras, part of the Gypsy region of southern Spain, Paco won an amateur guitar contest at age 12. Flamenco dancer Jose Greco soon took him out on tour, then Paco toured with his older brother Ramon, performing with dancers, an essential part of flamenco training. "I spent my whole teenage years playing for dancers and singers," he said. "I have had a very big relationship with dancers all my career. For a long time, that was the way to play flamenco, just backing up the dancers. To play solo in concert is something for a very few - Sabicas or Carlos Montoya. Not many else."
Add Paco de Lucia to that list. At his Carnegie/Kool concert he wowed the crowd with his adventurous, spontaneous flurries, straddling both the traditions of flamenco and the spirit of jazz. When asked to compare the two idioms, Paco said: "Musically, I think we have no similarities. But emotionally we have a lot in common. Because, for example, the blues, which is the foundation for much of jazz, comes from black people who have been very persecuted. And this creates a special feeling in the music. It's the same in flamenco with the gypsies, who were also very persecuted and kept out of society in Spain. So gypsies feel like a clan, and that strong feeling makes for a very special sound that comes through the music. The feeling is very much the same in both flamenco and in jazz."
When he's performing in concert with brother Ramon or other flamenco contemporaries, he's playing for the moment, trying to evoke moods rather than memorizing passages. "You play what you want to play without thinking in terms of structures. So the guitarists, we look to the faces and the hands and we follow, one to the other, what is happening at the moment. It has more freedom and is really much more anarchic than jazz."
Though he is currently touring Europe, Japan and South America with his own group (and negotiating a new contract with Holland Polygram abroad), Paco plans to reunite with his Trio buddies sometime in early '86. "Yes, it's very nice to play with John and Al," he laughs. "Nice competition. We fight on stage every night."

Bill Milkowski