TOUR 1980: "A Victory For The Acoustic Guitar"
John McLaughlin Al Di Meola Paco de Lucia

By Tom Wheeler

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: March 1981)

THEY WERE NIGHTS OF STANDING ovations, concerts for musicians' dreams, these acoustic guitar performances by Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, and Al Di Meola in the winter of 1980. "John was so intense tonight," exclaimed flamenco guitarist Rene Heredia after one show. "You should have seen him from the wings. His whole body was waving back and forth. It was real magic."
"Magic" is a common word in discussions of the tour, not only in the glowing conversations of audience members but in those of Al, John, and Paco themselves. Each is an eminent musician in his own right, having reaped stacks of awards and much acclaim and having had his share of special moments onstage. But the European and U.S. fans enjoyed more than the fruits of incandescent talents, for each trio member is also renowned for his eclecticism and adventurous spirit, and each has enormous respect for his compadres. Night after night, both the electricity of the music and the performers' mutual admiration permeated every corner of the hall. Below, Paco calls the experience "a victory for the acoustic guitar."
Every concert began with a sequence of solo performances by each trio member, alone onstage. Several duets in various combinations followed, and after an intermission the three took the stage together for unforgettable flights of interplay and improvisation.
Imagine a spirited rendition of Chick Corea's "Short Tales Of The Black Forest" with John McLaughlin at center stage on lead guitar, Al Di Meola to his right supporting with Latin-tinged rhythmic figures, and Paco de Lucia at his left interjecting lightning runs perhaps best described as jazz flamenco. They break into a round-robin section of short, blistering solos including improvised licks and-just for fun-quotes from "Jumping Jack Flash," "Sunshine Of Your Love," and even "Dueling Banjos." The trio's self-stoking interplay heats up the momentum. Intense concentration and bursts of humor are communicated to every seat in the house as each gesture-a swivelled shoulder, a spontaneous grin, even a glance-registers with the audience.
The repertoire also included, among many other selections, Egberto Gismonte's "Frevo" [on Gismonte's Solo, ECM, 1-1136], Di Meola's "Splendido Sundance," and Corea's "Spain." The players' inspiration proved contagious, greeted with an audience enthusiasm uncharacteristically rowdy for an acoustic setting. Many brief passages were met with roars of approval and whoops of delight, and fans leapt to their feet time after time.
A native of New Jersey, Al Di Meola replaced Bill Connors in Chick Corea's Return To Forever at age 19. He left in 1976 after recording three albums with the group. During the last four years his concert tours and solo LPs (including Land Of The Midnight Sun, Elegant Gypsy, Casino, and Splendido Hotel) have brought him four straight wins as Best Jazz Guitarist in the Guitar Player Readers' Poll, as well as three awards for the Best Guitar Album. Di Meola was the subject of the cover story in the February 1978 issue.
Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia was born in the Gypsy region of southern Spain. He accompanied dancer Jose Greco at age 12, released his first solo album at age 16, performed in distinguished concert halls, and began extensive tours that brought him fame and respect throughout the world. Paco is fiercely committed to spontaneity and has been criticized by some purists for expanding flamenco's boundaries (one ground-breaking project was his collaboration with Al Di Meola on Elegant Gypsy). Named Best Flamenco Guitarist by Guitar Player readers four times in the last four years, he is an innovator who respects the "rules," even the ones he breaks. "I was born in December," he said in our June 1977 feature. "Did you know that a Sagittarian is either el bandido or el musico?"
It was said of England's John McLaughlin in our August 1978 cover story: "Despite his vast knowledge of theory and awesome technical skills, he remains a searcher, an eternal aspirant." Manifesting extraordinarily diverse influences, McLaughlin has performed and recorded with several stellar jazz artists as well as his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, and the One Truth Band. A seminal jazz-rocker, he was named Best Jazz Guitarist in the Readers' Poll in 1973, 1974, and 1975, and the Best Overall Guitarist in 1974 and 1975. His quest for vehicles of expression has led to his use of double-neck solidbodies, a scalloped-fingerboard electric, and a drone-string flat-top of his own design. The tour with Paco and Al brought him back to the instrument with which he began his search, the nylon-stringed classical guitar.
The following interview was conducted with the assistance of Guitar Player editors Don Menn and Tom Mulhern; special thanks to Rene Heredia. John, Al, and Paco discuss how their collaboration came about, their equipment and repertoire, their respect for each others' art, the energy and joys of shared experience, and their evenings of rare chemistry.
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What does each of you like about the others' guitar styles and techniques?
McLaughlin: For me, what I heard in Paco was his spirit of adventure, and that spirit is what true jazz is about. It's about exploration, searching for new ways. Al and I grew up in this. In progressive music, improvisation is normal, and it's encouraged. But I've listened to a lot of flamenco, from a very long time ago, and I've loved it, but it's restricted in a sense by its traditions. What I heard in Paco was adventure.
Di Meola: I've felt that way, too. And as far as John is concerned, when I encountered him about ten years ago, he was the first guitarist I heard to combine a tremendous amount of emotion with incredible technique. I think that the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the first successful fusion group. I think he started that whole movement - I know he did.
McLaughlin: Of course, Al and Paco have made beautiful records, and one could say that, yes, Paco has technical things, and Al has delicacy and brilliance, but these are only little things when trying to answer your question, which is a very profound question. For me, to honestly look at what I like about their music, I would have to say that I love them as men. What I see in their life at night when we play-that's what I find beautiful. It's the way you see their life coming out when they play their music. They articulate it in their own unique way-their whole lives, and what they go through. They're completely themselves as men, and I love them as men.
de Lucia: I feel at home when I play with them. John, for me, is very sabio-a wise musician. He goes beyond roots. He plays world music. He can be a flamenco, and with Al it's the same thing. He feels the music in a Latin way. Onstage, I only have to look at him, how be plays physically-you know, when he gets his shoulder moving- for me to feel very good. I feel at home playing with him, even with the differences between us.

How do you approach playing in the trio, and how does it compare to your solo performances?
de Lucia: When I play alone, I hear only myself, and that's very satisfactory. But when I'm playing with Juanito and Alberto I have to fight to play a little bit better, because they are two monsters. I'd like to do more of this. It's a new way of playing.

Did you have to change your technique in order to fit in with two other guitarists?
de Lucia: Manual technique, no, but conceptually, yes. I play always in a very anarchic way, but here we are improvising in a jazz way, and it's not what I'm used to doing.

Did you exchange material before you got together, or did you write out charts? How did you teach the unison and harmony parts to each other?
Di Meola: There was nothing exchanged before we got together. Once we met, it was a combination of learning by ear and using written-out parts.
McLaughlin: Paco doesn't read music, but he picks things up like that [snaps fingers]. He has an impeccable ear.
Di Meola: He's gotten very good at that. I remember when Paco and I first recorded three or four years ago he had never done anything like that, and it was a bit difficult. But coming to rehearsal for this, he was very, very quick.

Have you been surprised by the exuberance of the crowds, the screaming?
Di Meola: No, not really. In certain countries they don't do that. Like in Germany, they're quite reserved until the end of the song. The further south you go in Europe, they get more wild-Spain, Italy, France.

Does the crowd noise ever disturb or distract you?
Di Meola: Sometimes the timing is pretty bad, like during a soft section they'll scream out John's name [laughs] at the wrong time. But we're used to it.
de Lucia: In Andalucia, when I play, the audience at some times will say "Ole" all at once. If they don't say "Ole," it means that you have played like shit [laughs].

How did this tour come about?
Di Meola: Paco's manager, Barry Marshall, gave me a call and asked me if I was interested, and I immediately said yes.
McLaughlin: Paco is one of my all-time favorite guitar players, and so is Al. Al and I had never played together, although we talked about it several years ago. I called Paco about a tour of Japan that I was set to do in July, and he said, "I'm doing a tour with Al. You come with me and Al." I was a little exhausted, and I wanted to make a record, but how could I say no? So here I am, and it's one of my most difficult tours, but at the same time I think maybe it's the most satisfying tour I've ever done in my life.

How much time did you have to rehearse prior to the first gig?
McLaughlin: [laughs] Not too much!
Di Meola: I got sick. I'd just finished three months of touring with my band in the States, and right after my last concert I caught the flu. I think the three of us rehearsed for what-two or three days? And this was while I was sick, totally exhausted. But we just hit it-started on the 14th of October in Helsinki, Finland, and worked our way down, doing over 46 or 47 concerts with only a few days off.
McLaughlin: And l'm ready to do another 46 [laughs]. It's been very well-planned.

The tour itself, or the musical program?
McLaughlin: Everything, from the first moment.
Di Meola: The audiences were phenomenal. We sold out every date and could have easily sold out extra shows in most cities. It's just beautiful. Every city has treated the tour as a major event.

Are you continuing to rehearse on the road as you go?
McLaughlin: Yes, but there's very little time. If we get some time off, we'll sit down and smooth out some rough edges.

There are a lot of smooth edges, too.
McLaughlin: Well, we've been rubbing up against each other every night for two months!
Di Meola: And now it's hard to stop. I feel like this is [pauses] our band.
McLaughlin: We all feel the same way.

Paco, do you think that your participation in this tour signals a possible new path for flamenco in general?
de Lucia: Yes, it's what I'm trying to do. I'm very glad to be here, to try to further my music.

Have you succeeded in being influenced musically by this association?
de Lucia: Yes, because I play guitar not for me, but for flamenco. I don't want to be a star, or a rich man. I am working for my village, for my country, for my music, for the tradition of the art form, and I want to make the music better, always better. These two are helping me do that.

Can you specify the way in which they are influencing you?
de Lucia: The harmony. In my music, we are very simple. In the phrygian mode, there are simple scales and harmonies with heavy emotion and tradition. With these two I am learning all kinds of new harmonic and melodic forms. We do not have as much time as we would like on the road to exchange things, except during performances, but I will put it in my head, and go home later, and I will play what I have learned.

What do you see for the future of flamenco?
de Lucia: I cannot see ahead two meters you know? I live the moment, the second. To make the future is to live every day, every second. But joining these two men is a step. They asked, "Do you want to do this?" and it was a very quick decision for me to say yes.

Do you think that there will be a resistance among flamenco traditionalists to this sort of experimentation?
de Lucia: Of course. There are two kinds of flamencos, the old, traditional flamenco, and the new, young kind. The old ones cannot accept the change, and they say their way is pure. But pure remains for me to play what I feel at the moment, always with respect for the roots. It's not a problem for me whether they accept it or not. lt's something I forgot a long time ago.
Di Meola: I think a lot of them are jealous that he's taken this step. He's not leaving flamenco; he's expanding it. He was the first one to do it successfully, and it took a lot of guts. Paco and I first recorded together three-and-a-half-years ago. If any other flamenco player has really stepped out of the traditions since that time, I'm not aware of it. Paco told me that he'd never done anything like that, so there must have been some fright involved. I was frightened, too, but that makes me want to do it even more. I want to learn from Paco. I want to learn from John. It can be frightening, because we think so highly of one another.

How did you choose the repertoire for this tour?
Di Meola: We all contributed equally. John had two or three compositions that he wanted to play, I had some of mine. Paco had two of his, and then we chose two of Chick Corea's pieces, "Spain" and "Short Tales Of The Black Forest." We've stuck with the same pieces throughout the tour.

Who chose the Gismonti composition?
McLaughlin: "Frevo" was my idea, because I like the piece very much and it's difficult. It has Spanish and Portuguese overtones, and so it's nice for Paco, because he's at home. If he can find himself at home, he can do more or less anything.

What's the title of the song with the D / A / C / G progression?
McLaughlin: That's the fourth movement of "Fantasia Suite For Two Guitars." [on Di Meola's Casino, Columbia 35277]. Al wrote it-Alberto.

Al, did you write out the parts for Paco and John?
Di Meola: I do have them written out, but I didn't bring them along. I just showed everyone the parts. The one that I brought the music to was "Short Tales Of The Black Forest." [on Di Meola's Land Of The Midnight Sun, Columbia, 34074]. It's got a lot of notes.

With the support of bass and drums, a guitarist can usually backoff and relax once in a while. Is it more difficult for each of you playing as a trio? Do you have more responsibilities?
de Lucia: Not more responsibilities, but a different kind of responsibility.
McLaughlin: There is none of what you say, the taking a break.You cannot relax in the sense of taking time out. Yes, the solo is extremely important, and one must be inventive, but at the same time, the accompaniment is at least as difficult to do well. And what we're doing would only work with acoustic guitars.
Di Meola: It's something that you don't get a chance to do as often when you're playing electric in a band.
McLaughlin: In a sense you have to concentrate more in the art of accompaniment. In a solo you have only pure ideas, but in accompaniment you listen to ideas and, at the same time, play something that can support and encourage the soloist to go further. There is no letting up. But that's very good. The rhythms are there, but they're more subtle.

What does it take to play this kind of music?
McLaughlin: I think it takes more intelligence than other types, but it also takes more heart. Playing acoustic music in a group is [searches for a word], man [laughs]. Most of what we're doing involves interchange, interplay. rapport. Interaction -that's really what it's all about, isn't it?

Why is all of this being done with guitars? Why not with flutes?
Di Meola: Something similar has been done before with piano. Like Herbie Hancock and Chick did something like this. But what we're doing is visual- you can see what we're doing. That's one thing. And the sounds are created with the actual flesh. On a piano, something is hitting the string other than the actual flesh. There's something about seeing that direct contact in a guitar performance.

John, you mentioned that this collaboration could only work with acoustic guitars. Why is that?
McLaughlin: Because the acoustic guitar has a quality that does not exist in any other instrument in the world. It embraces another guitar, from anywhere, from any style. That just cannot exist with electric guitars-it wouldn't work; it's as simple as that. The timbre, the sonority-I can't really say the name for it because the word doesn't exist, but it's a unique quality. You can get any two guitar players together, and they will take each other in. People do this all the time, simply because it sounds good.
Di Meola: You can't strum an electric the way we strum acoustics. You can switch from rhythm to lead very comfortably on acoustic, but not on electric. It's easier to have a conversation on acoustic.
McLaughlin: That's it-the acoustic guitar listens well.
de Lucia: This tour is a victory for the acoustic guitar.
Di Meola: With acoustics we develop more of a feeling. Like I'm not a flamenco guitarist, and Paco's not a jazz guitarist, but we can feel each other's feelings. I feel Latin music.

Could you generalize about how much of your performance is improvisation?
Di Meola: Percentage-wise? Sixty percent, maybe fifty.
McLaughlin: I'd say more. Even with the written things, there is a constant modification going on, variations on the themes. This is taking place on different levels. On a solo it's more evident, but every night there are variations being made on the accompaniment as well, on the small things. It's at a very subtle level, and it's constant.

What klnd of guitars are you using on the tour?
McLaughlin: Mine is a stock Ovation classic with nylon strings. I just picked it right off the rack. It wasn't a special choice for this tour.
Di Meola: Mine is also stock, an Ovation Legend steel-string. Like John's, it's got a pickup built in.
de Lucia: Mine is an Hermanos Conde, of Madrid. They are also known as Sobrinos de Esteso, which means nephews of Esteso. The guitar has both names inside. It's five or six years old. It's not the guitar I prefer. My best guitar was stolen from the car last year. That was also an Esteso-always Esteso.

John, was there a particular reason why you didn't bring along your drone-string gultar on this tour?
McLaughlin: I used it with Shakti, and that music was very linear, and what we're doing now is not at all linear-it's harmonic, very western. It's hard to use the drone-string for harmonic movement. It's not that I didn't want the microtones that one can get with a scalloped fingerboard such as the one on my drone-string, but rather that I simply wanted to play the classic type of guitar, which l fell in love with when I was 11 years old.

How far down do you tune your bass E for your solo piece? At times it sounds almost like a bowed note.
McLaughlin: Yes, it was tuned down to low A, and the fifth is an A as well.

Did that require a shift to a heavier gauge?
McLaughlin: No, the normal plastic strings work very well on my plastic guitar. It's true. It's more difficult on steel strings, and you need a heavier gauge, but the nylon string is already big, and the tone stays pure.

Have you had any problems with the amplified acoustic guitars in large halls?
Di Meola: Because I use more of the direct signal than the others, I've had a problem with balance. Sometimes the rhythm overpowers the lead. If I had more of the mike, I could lean forward into the mike when I need a little stronger sound to compensate.

John seems to do that quite a bit.
Di Meola: Yes, he uses more of the mike. I use about one-quarter mike to three-quarters direct.

Were you all involved with your choice of microphones?
McLaughlin: No, that's really out of our domain. There are so many good mikes, really. We would like to do more work like this, and given the success we've had, it seems likely that we will. Perhaps as time goes by we'll find the optimum microphone and things of this sort .
Di Meola: Yes, it would be nice to have our own monitors and so on. We often get these rock and roll monitors with little horns in them, and that just doesn't work. We need 10§ and 12§ speakers-more of a warm sound.

You're not taking any of that equipment with you?
McLaughlin: No, we travel very light, although it's important that we take our own sound person to mix. It's very difficult to mlx three guitars if you're not used to it. He must also know the music-where the individual solos come in-in order to keep the equilibrium.
Di Meola: On the stage, when I begin a solo, I can hear the volume come up a little bit, and that makes all the difference in the way you're going to play it.

It must be very tricky with tossing the lead around among the three of you?
Di Meola: Yes, that's why it's important to have the same person do the sound night after night. [Ed. Note: See the accompanying interview with sound man Vance Anderson.] Once he's learned it, he's got it for the rest of the tour.

John, you seem to be doing little tricks on the guitar that you haven't done before, the pounding on the top and so on. Does that come from playing with this group?
Di Meola: The first time he did that-I got scared [laughs].
McLaughlin: I think it just comes from playing this kind of guitar. It's a body, an extension.

Each of you holds the guitar as if you've known it for a long time.
McLaughlin: The guitar is the hardest woman I ever knew, the most challenging- every night, really. It's the most demanding.

Have any of you made many suggestions to the others about playing things in different ways?
Di Meola: Yeah, at various times during the tour we've sat down andńfought [laughs]. I think we all feel free to express ideas.
McLaughlin: You have to feel free, but within the context of taste-empathy, to use that much abused word. The interaction is certainly changing us as individuals, and I welcome it. Paco and Al play in their own ways, and they're very different than me. But they play things that are very beautiful, things that affect me, thlngs that are completely other than myself. It inspires me.
Di Meola: I could hear John's background-not just his musical background, but where he comes from, and it's the same with Paco.
McLaughlin: Al and I had the same idea-to play with Paco. I heard Paco on the radio, and it was love at first hearing. I said, "I have to play with this man, and that's all I know." And so I looked for him until I found him.

Paco, before you started playing this new music, were you listening to fusion players- John McLaughlin, or Al Di Meola?
de Lucia: I never listened to other kinds of music, only flamenco. My philosophy of life was around flamenco only, a very closed tradition. I looked at it not so much as music, but more as a kind of life, a way of living. It's something strange, but I never used to think of myself as playing music. I was living a special kind of life, flamenco. I thought of myself as a guitarist, but not so much a musician. I come from a long tradition in my family of people immersed in flamenco, and it's only been recently- about seven years ago-that I've considered myself as a musician, beyond guitar.

What happened at that time?
de Lucia: I worked with a jazz musician, a saxophone player. I played flamenco, and this guy played jazz, and we kind of made a blend. Doing "Mediterranean Sundance" with Al on Elegant Gypsy [Columbia, 34461] was the first time I really became aware of the possibilities. On this tour I had to learn a lot, and I had to start thinking about harmony, and chords, and many scales, and I didn't always sleep well. Now I can sleep, I'm more free, more comfortable. Now I don't have to think. Thinking is the worst thing in improvisation. You need only feeling. Forget everything. Only feeling. Try to fly.

Al, if Paco had been a more traditional flamenco player, would you have sought him out?
Di Meola: I'm not sure. I did know that his technique was a lot better than most.

Is three guitar players an optimum number? Would four be workable, or better?
de Lucia: We are four musicians. Vance, the sound man, is the fourth.
Di Meola: Four guitars would be too much luggage for Vance to carry around [laughs].

Are there limitations to the group?
de Lucia: We are playing all this time to see if, maybe on one day out of a month, we can play completely free. The limitation is how much you have to work to get that one moment of really being happy.
McLaughlin: What are the limitations? Your own inability, your own incapacity, your own lack of inspiration-as Paco says, you work, you fight against these limitations in the hope that you have one night where you fly like an eagle. And when that happens, it makes everything worthwhile. That moment of feedom is the happiest thing in the world, the most satisfying, the most of everything you can think of.
Di Meola: You work all your life to get that moment
McLaughlin: Worldwide, there are so many factors involved. You feel tired, or the moon is in Venus or somewhere-who knows? I don't know, but I think that there must be a million factors that we're not aware of. There's the problem of totally forgetting all your knowledge and experience, so that you play totally spontaneously. The most difficult thing to do is to forget everything you know, and that's what's necessary for those nights. The muse will come when she wants. If you're there, and you can share it, that's the most beautiful thing.

Would you consider that state to be the essence of true improvisation?
McLaughlin: To really improvise, to say something that you feel at the moment, is the most difficult thing in the world. If you play what you know, then it's not real. To truly improvise requires you to not know anything, in a sense. It's a very difficult and obtuse point. You want to have your knowledge available to you, but the most beautiful thing is to play something for the first time in your life. In this state of mind you see everything before you, every possibility, and you feel that you have the ability to move down any avenue you wish. All avenues suddenly open to you. Music opens the avenues, places you've never ever been. That can happen in your imagination, but when It occurs in music it's wonderful, because it happens not only inside, but outside at the same moment. When it happens for any one of the three, we all know, and that's the most beautiful thing. It's exciting. All of a sudden-listen to Al! Listen to him. He's there! It's magic.
Di Meola: If the first solo-whoever takes it-is fantastic, you feel a little bit of that pressure to really play well, and you usually do. It raises you up a bit to think-whoa, I've got to top that?
McLaughlin: The three of us play for each other. The audience is important, but secondary. Most important to me is that I want to give something to these two men. The last thing I want is for them to get bored. Life can be very hard, right? Full of all kinds of anguish that we all go through. But we can give something to make life happy, something beautiful. That makes everything right.
Di Meola: And when it goes right, you feel like you can do anything. You start playing things you've never played before, and it seems like you have no limitations.
de Lucia: You feel like you know all there is to know.

Added Notes From The Tour's Sound Man

Vance Anderson was the sound man for the 1980 tour of Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin. On more than one occasion the guitarists referred to their group as a quartet, the fourth member being Anderson. Here Vance provides brief, additional details of the equipment used on the trip.
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What were your responsibilities to John, Paco, and Al on this tour?
Vance: Aside from being the sound man I was also the tour manager, so that kept me busy. But just as far as sound is concerned, there were big things and little ones, too. One job was to size up the particular room. After a time I came to know the three guitars well, so I just needed to decide how to make the best use of the acoustic environment. Then there were the little things-like when John put a new battery into his Ovation, it'd make a difference in the guitar's sound. I had to be aware of that.

Were the guitarists using pickups as well as mikes?
Vance: John and Al were. The pickups went direct to the board, with no amps, and the signals were blended with the mikes. Paco used a mike but no pickups.

Did his guitar require more effort on your part because of that?
Vance: Yes, it gave me the most worries, but only because it didn't have the added versatility of the pickup. It has a beautiful natural tone, very precussive. It seems that the whole instrument resonates, so that if you put a mike only near the soundhole you have trouble getting the whole sound. Low frequencies are the most prominent on his guitar.

Did you find it necessary to use a lot of equalization for any of the instruments?
Vance: I didn't usually need much EQ, but it depended on the room.

Did you carry your own mixing board with you?
Vance: In Europe for about 30 dates we used the same board, but in the States we used whatever the house had to offer, so I had to improvise-like John and Paco and Al.