Guitar's Triumvirate Returns

By Jon Chappell

(Reprinted from Guitar magazine: February 1997)

Guitar aficionados have been calling the G3 tour the guitar event of the decade, but there's another guitar-toting trio that's been turning the heads and burning the ears of six-string worshipers everywhere. This threesome has been tearing up stages around the world, and has the chops and musicality to rival even the estimable Messrs. Vai, Johnson, and Satriani.
Though these acoustic pickers may not compete with G3's electrical onslaught on a decibel level, their playing is every bit as spectacular and virtuosic. We are speaking, of course, of the return of the venerable Trio: Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia, and John McLaughlin.
It's been 14 years since the Yank, the Spaniard, and the Brit pIayed together, but to hear them spin flurries of single-line cascades into each other with pin-point precision, and to witness the lightning-fast call-and-response dialogue between their guitars, you'd never know they'd taken a break. They've released an album called The Trio, and they are delighting audiences worldwide with their talents, both individually and as an ensemble. Even after the 14-year hiatus, flamenco and acoustic jazz guitar has never sounded so fresh, so vital, so beautiful. The Trio has returned.
Paco, Al, and John had first played together in the early '80s, producing two albums, the live Friday Night In San Francisco, and the follow-up Passion, Grace & Fire. They had all come from different backgrounds. De Lucia was a renowned classical and flamenco player, well-known in Spain and Europe, but not as recognized in the U.S. Di Meola burst onto the scene in 1974 as the new guitarist for Chick Corea's Return To Forever band. He then went on to have a successful solo career, producing both electric and acoustic albums (e.g., Elegant Gypsy and Casino) that fused his jazz and Latin influences. McLaughlin played with Miles Davis, and then went on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a leading jazz-rock fusion band that was contemporary with Corea's Return To Forever and Weather Report. McLaughlin also established an acoustic identity with Shakti, an ensemble that reflected his penchant for fusing virtuosic flatpicking with Indian music.
Since each guitarist had his devotees, the united effort in the early '80s galvanized acoustic guitar cognoscenti everywhere and made The Trio a commercial success (their two albums together have sold almost four million copies). But each guitarist had individual pursuits and responsibilities, so after Passion, Grace & Fire, The Trio disbanded, leaving audiences clamoring for more. It would take 13 years before the reunion seeds would be planted.
The first hint of a Trio reunion came with last year's release of John McLaughlin's The Promise, a compilation that featured the guitarist in a variety of ensemble settings. Tucked in amongst the 14 tracks was a song called "El Ciego," which featured Al and Paco. The next thing people knew, there was talk of a recording entitled simply The Guitar Trio and the announcement of a supporting tour, which was to begin in Europe. We caught up with Al Di Meola midway into the American tour to find out exactly how the reunion was orchestrated, and to see how The Trio is faring after 13 years of separation.


Judging by the reception you've been getting from audiences in Europe and North America, did you think that this was something you should have done earlier - and not waited 13 years to do?

No. I myself was comfortable that we had a good thing in 1983, but that it was over. I've been extremely busy doing my own thing, and the same is true for Paco and John. I thought we made some great music back then, but we all moved on. I think what we're doing now is good too - we are making some great music. But as far as regrets, no, I don't have any.

What were the events that brought you back together?

Well, I guess it was Phonogram, the record company that has the three of us signed. They kind of spearheaded the reunion of the three of us, and it started actually with John calling me, and asking me to play on his solo album - the trio piece with Paco.

Was there any arm twisting that had to go on, or was everybody pretty much into it?

There's no arm twisting for any of us, we all wanted to do it. There were just a lot of differences of opinion on so many different issues, mostly from a managerial side, and some musical things, too. We have now, after touring this past summer, found our equilibrium. This summer it was really hard to find that place of comfort again - for all of us. So there was a lot of tension, but here we are. We've made it through a recording, too.

This record seems more composed - less improvisational than the other two.

It's probably more improvisational than Passion, Grace & Fire and a lot less than Friday Night In San Francisco. Friday Night In San Francisco was at the end of a two-month tour, and it's just quite natural that after touring that long you would have very extended solos, you know, and short compositional heads. But I'm not really interested in that kind of thing, personally. I mean, for a live album, okay. But for a studio album, I need to have a lot of composition to keep my attention. The improvisation is there, but I can't listen to a whole record of just blowing. Just bores the hell out of me. This record is more composed - but also more improvisational. Passion, Grace & Fire is really kind of like half a record; it was 15 minutes long, the whole record.

I didn't realize it was that short.

That's because of all the notes we play [laughs]. It was a mistake to put it out that way, but that's what happened. In those days, I guess you could get away with it - it was vinyl. Fifteen minutes on a CD, you're going to hell. We have four times that amount on this new record.

There's a gorgeous duet between you and John, the bossa nova jazz standard "Manha de Carnaval" [also known as "Black Orpheus"]. Whose idea was it to do that, yours?

It was actually, believe it or not, John. It goes back to when we first got together in the early '80s and I was totally into doing it, so I said, "Yeah, cool, great" - that kind of reaction. It made it even more intriguing for me to do, because when you think of John, you think of five billion notes per second - not to say that I don't have a reputation for playing in that dimension. But it intrigued me because the nature of the piece is not what you think of when you think of John - it was kind of opposite of what people might expect.

There's some stunning work in that song, and your tone in particular is exquisite.

Thanks. It's the same live. When we do the song live, people just melt with this tone.

What guitar are you playing on that cut?

John and I are both on nylon. I'm playing a Conde Hermanos, and John's playing an Abe Wechter.

Hermanos is the guitar Paco plays too, isn't it?

Yes, we play similar-sounding guitars. These instruments just have tremendous beauty and sustain to them. I tell you, I have to get the insurance upped on it. It's really amazing - even Paco was amazed at it, and I had a cutaway put into it as well.

Didn't that change the sound?

No, though I took a big chance. The instrument's going on 20 years old, so I think in time it's aged, and the sound has gotten even better. It's something special.

What have you done to your Ovation over the years, or how has that evolved?

It's pretty much off the factory line. There is a trick to getting a great sound on an Ovation in the studio, but it's a lot easier, mind you, than getting a good acoustic sound live, because you have the ambiance of the hall magnifying the largeness of the sound. In the studio, it's a combination of microphones, and you really need to use the right microphones.

Are you also taking a direct signal in the studio?

Not on the nylon, but on the Ovation, absolutely.

What is the mix of mic to pickup, what percentage?

I would say microphone about 60 percent, and direct about 40. The direct gives you a littie bit more bottom.

An interesting development is to see both you and John on synths for your solo segments in the concert.

John's using the Axon system, and I was using the Roland GR series, but now I'm using the Roland VG-8, which of course is not a synth. I've just started using it now, and I'm going to be Roland's first endorser. The first one they've ever had in history.


Yeah, I finally am able to capture what I want and I'm really happy about it, because I love Roland products and I've been using their synth for so long. And now they're coming out with something that I'm not even allowed to talk about. It's brand new, and I was at the factory and I was playing on their only prototype, so I'm going to be introducing some new product with them.

This product that you can't talk about - what is it - modeling, synthesis?

Well, the VG-8 doesn't use any samples, let's just leave it at that. But I love working with samples, orchestrating parts and working with percussion, both live and sampled. We recorded the Trio album at Peter Gabriel's studio, and he had a lot of hand percussion instruments around. I played these on the record, and it got me thinking more about that. I'll probably get around to working that aspect into my own work, because I'm really into all that stuff. There's a lot of different areas I'll be exploring in the future.