Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin
The Guitar Trio Returns

By Matt Resnicoff

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: February 1997)

After reconvening for the tune "El Ciego" on John McLaughlin's The Promise in 1995, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia decided to take their super trio on the road again for the first time in 15 years. In 1981 their million-selling live recording Friday Night in San Francisco documented some of the most breathtaking guitar performances ever; the three have since explored countless musical forms but never abandoned the acoustic guitar or the hope of re-forming this beloved group.
The three maestros approached their new self-titled Verve record and tour with characteristic passion, grace and fire, although the project did sustain its share of heartache. With no advance time to compose, Paco came off a tour and headed into a studio with John and Al, where the flamenco master recorded for ten hours a day and then stayed up until 6 a.m. arranging music on a PowerBook. Despite the inevitable stresses of joint leadership by three unforgiving, highly developed musicians, the new record and tour represent a triumphant creative success.


Do you each still view this band as an opportunity to learn?
Di Meola: If that wasn't a factor, I wouldn't have done it. Playing with these guys, you have to reach, and you grow-no two ways about it. I find myself in hotel rooms coming up with stuff I might not have come up with, composition-wise and maybe soloing-wise. I'm in an inspired time; my mom passed away over the summer, and that may play a part. Deep music comes from depth of emotion.
De Lucia: It's nice to play with leaders so they won't play for you, because in these 15 years we've been accustomed to leading our own bands, and even if the sidemen feel free onstage, they are still your musicians. It's great to fight every day to make the best solo of the night. It's a push to be better. And it's difficult, because improvising is not my way, but Al and John have been improvising since they were kids.
McLaughlin: The trio is a special form, not mine or theirs. Paco might be struggling, but we're all fighting. To play acoustic is an effort. You really play it physically. And the way Al and Paco play, it's new. You can feel it in the way we interact with each other on the record and onstage. The chemistry has always been a mystery to all of us, but something happens.

Can you hear the results of working with so many other styles in the interim?
Di Meola: Absolutely. There are stronger pieces. Friday Night almost doesn't count, because it was a big blowing session and our chops were really hot. But the composition is going to give the new record lasting value, because the blowing's always going to be there. I like that. I started out with one of the great composers, Chick Corea; there was another boost from my association with Astor Piazzolla. I credit those guys for my development in composing for this record.
De Lucia: Flamenco is anarchic-we sit as guitar players and see each other's hands and face; we go together and nobody knows where. In jazz it's organized improvisation where everybody knows the harmony, it's much more sophisticated. You can play many scales. I don't know how to read or write music, so this opens your mind harmonically. That's why I did this the first time. I got crazy because I wasn't prepared. I suffered until I figured it out. But suffering is good to grow and create. Any musician, classical or any style, should improvise. In flamenco we never know the note we play. Soul makes you play. But in improvisation, you have to think at the same time, and this is my problem.

So I take it you've hit some wrong notes with the trio.
De Lucia: Thousands. [Laughter.] Every night. I try to make it coherent. If you have the tranquillity and stability to create from that note something beautiful and find a way to go out with elegance, this is very good. You make a wrong note and stop playing, make a bad face-that is not nice.

Has it been easy to gel with one another after years leading your own groups? There have been rumors that you aren't getting along so wonderfully.
De Lucia: I thought that as you get older you lose your defects because you've refined your personality, but I discover when you get older, the defect multiplies. [Laughs.] We work worse than 15 years ago, because the defects are worse! No, we are okay, but we're not like three monks. We have strong personalities, and sometimes it's difficult. But we can live with it.
Di Meola: It's going great. It wasn't going great this summer; it was so hard to get used to one another again. I can't begin to tell you the differences in the personalities and the clashes, compromises.

Di Meola: Musical too! [Laughter.] It got so bad, it was almost a cancellation, but we returned to our senses and realized we're here to play. We've grown as leaders and become more difficult in how we like things, and it got to where the communication onstage wasn't good. But we were blessed with a turnabout-we've got good communication, and real magic is happening every night.
McLaughlin: As soon as you put human beings together you get some conflict, but what's wrong with it? Existence is chaotic and we're looking to find order. Chaos and conflict are synonymous; personalities clash, but isn't this necessary? In my opinion it's essential to finding something, and maybe the greater the conflict, the greater the creation.

I'm surprised at your candor about the one-upmanship.
McLaughlin: Look, the only egoless persons in this world are saints. And you don't find saints playing guitars. Vanity and pride-we're born with that. This is part of the impetus in the soul, so we shouldn't denigrate ego with a connotation of "me at the expense of others." Why did I dedicate my life to music? It's because I love music and guitar more than anything. But at the same time, what is the search for excellence? Can you answer that? In my opinion, it's tied to vanity and pride. We see egoism everywhere, but the good side is in humanity, the search, in spite of not knowing what it's about. We are compulsively moved in that direction.

So did this reunion match your expectations?
McLaughlin: Whatever you can dream up, even write, will never turn out the way you imagine it. Never. But this is part of the deal. It's perfect in your imagination, but the reality's something else, and the reality is more interesting.