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World Music Legends

Paco de Lucia

By Robert Kaye
Published September 19, 2007

Hailed by critics and peers as the greatest living flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucía’s name elicits reverence among musicians and guitar fans from nearly every musical genre. Ever since his recording debut in the early 1960s, de Lucía has been venerated for his commanding technique, as well as his ability to play with a profound sense of jondura (emotional depth and feeling). The guitarist, who grew up as Francisco Sánchez Gomez up in Algeciras, a port city in the southern province of Cadiz, Spain. He first learned flamenco guitar from his father and older brother, as well as a close family friend (who happened to be a great guitar master of his generation), Nino de Ricardo.

When he was only twelve, the young musician was awarded a special prize at a flamenco contest in Jerez. He soon took on his mother’s name as part of his stage persona, christening himself “de Lucía.” In 1961, he began touring the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australia as an accompanist with Jose Greco’s troupe. It was another flamenco guitar genius, Sabicas, who de Lucía met while touring the States, who encouraged him to begin composing his own music.

For years, de Lucía’s guitar supported dancers and singers, and he was consistently cheered for his sensitive accompaniment, as well as his stunning solo playing. Still, he felt restless performing in strictly conventional contexts, and began to seek out extracurricular activities. One of de Lucía’s most notable domestic releases—the album that introduced him to a wider North American audience, and helped him to step away from pure flamenco—was the legendary concert document Friday Night In San Francisco, recorded with fellow guitar virtuosi Al di Meola and John McLaughlin at the Warfield Theatre in 1980. The disc captures these three monster talents (an overused adjective, but in this case entirely apropos) jamming, trading solos, and fi ring up their respective fretboards. The trio’s subsequent studio project, Passion, Grace And Fire was just as impressive, and equally well-received.

Working with noted jazz artists like keyboardist Chick Corea further inspired de Lucía to explore non-flamenco sounds and styles. Showing a pioneer spirit, de Lucía sought to expand flamenco’s breadth by interweaving elements and instrumentation from jazz, rock and world music, even introducing electronic effects (via Carles Benavent’s innovative approach to the bass guitar) into his otherwise all-acoustic ensemble, the legendary Paco de Lucía Sextet.

“The Sextet came about from improvisation and experimentation,” the now 60-year-old de Lucía recalls. “It was not something that was premeditated on my part it was more spontaneous. I was on tour in Europe and saw it was very exciting to play with other musicians from other parts of the world and backgrounds. Before that, I had played mostly solo, or sometimes only with one or two other guitar players or singers. So it was kind of like a game, like going to parties and playing with different people there. My approach for the sextet wasn’t formal. We never rehearsed our material in advance.” Given the group’s astonishing interplay, collective and individual instrumental prowess, and often breathtakingly tight arrangements, that comment seems incredible. It’s safe to say, even 23 years later, that hardly any Nuevo Flamenco group, from Spain or any other country, has ever matched de Lucía’s Sextet for sheer verve and virtuosity.

“We only rehearsed during the tours,” de Lucía continues. “We mostly played improvisations. And we changed things nearly every day. If I saw that something wasn’t right, I’d say, ‘No, this part I don’t like, we have to do this,’ or ‘we have to do that.’ In that regard, we never got very serious with the Sextet, it was something very informal in that things were always so fluid musically.”

His woodwind player, Jorge Pardo, came from a jazz background, and de Lucía’s bassist, Carles Benavent, was experienced in r