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Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin, Live 1987 Freiburg

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John McLaughlin

This concert is one of those absolute lost gems. A bit of background: John McLaughlin is an English jazz/fusion/world guitarist who is an absolute titan in guitar and modern music in general through the second half of the twentieth century. Born to a family of musicians, he took to the guitar at age 11, and was soon after giving lessons to Jimmy Page (yes, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin). He became a regular session musician at age 17 and moved to London to start in jazz; at 18 he was recording with Miles Davis on "In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew" with a track named after him, "Go ahead John."

The partnership with Miles is key to understanding John's style throughout his life, as he really came of age as an artist under Miles' wing. Even decades later, the way he staggers his runs, and his improvisational choices are strongly reminiscent of later period Miles on the horn. It is this rooting in jazz that results in solo work that often frustrates the listener’s expectation for harmonic resolution, which is likely why, despite his tremendous talent, John never quite figured as largely in the mainstream as many of his peers who revere him.

Jeff Beck has referred to him as an immense influence and the best guitarist alive; Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta cites him as a major influence; Frank Zappa is on record that 

"Only a moron couldn't appreciate John McLaughlin." 

Soon after his work with Miles Davis, John became a hit within the music community, and soon after formed and recorded with the "Mahavishnu Orchestra" a highly powerful, very progressive electric jazz-fusion band that explored avant-garde time signatures and world music. The band would go through several configurations and John would delve deeply into Indian music.

By the time of this concert John had mellowed out and was at the height of his skill. He and Paco were old friends but they are just really on fire this particular night.

Paco de Lucia

As for Paco De Lucia, we're essentially discussing the Mozart of Flamenco guitar. The youngest of five children in a long line of flamenco guitarists, from the age of 5 he would practice up to 12 hours a day - he was often taken out of school by his father to train guitar, and later said "I learned the guitar as a child learns to speak." By age 11 he was winning awards; by age 14 he was recording, and in 1972, at age 21, he released "El Duende Flamenco de Paco De Lucia," a ground-breaking Flamenco album.Paco plays like an absolute thoroughbred, his "picado" runs are crystal clear and resounding, even playing sixteenth notes at 180 bps. Technical errors are virtually non-existent; his posture text book, as if his father would rap him on the scold to this day if even his back were less than arrow straight. He contrasts the picado picking with the traditional flamenco rasgueado strumming, throwing in some jazz influences in there as well to keep you on your toes, yet never losing the identity of Flamenco. He is rightly considered one of the greatest guitarist in all history.

So both of these two had just passed the peak of their extraordinary careers, and were old friends playing together out of love and mutual admiration. Note the contrast of Paco playing a Flamenco guitar, nylon string, finger picking style, while John plays a steel string jazz acoustic guitar with a pick.

The opening song is Chick Corea's "Spain" a wonderful piece that allows you to truly compare and contrast the styles and sounds of these two world grandmasters.

Behold, New World Jazz Fusion meets Old World New Flamenco!

Most likely you'll favor Paco over John, which with Paco's pedigree and unmatched clarity and control is inevitable. Not that John is far behind at all: when you factor in again the jazz influence, if it isn't your cup of tea to know to listen for "the notes he's not playing" then you'll find his choices beautiful but not quite as fulfilling and satisfying as Paco’s - though definitely something to savor in their own right.

Check out John's smile at 8:02 when after John's extensive scale runs Paco takes over and the immediate contrast in tonal brilliance is so evident John can't help but smile, and get all happy he's been taught something. Playing fast and messy is easy, and while John plays fast and very clean there's an inevitable muffled quality to the ring on the string. That's common to John and to some degree to virtually every guitarist playing that quickly; it’s the result of the notes blurring together just a bit, and not sounding very bright, which is almost inevitable at that acoustic speed... but damn kid, not Paco. Paco sounds like a harpsichord with each note; a bright little bell tone inside it's own little box with it's own personal space, even at blinding speed, and even on a nylon guitar! Listen to John's scales leading up to the 8 min mark and then listen to Paco's immediately after. Yeah man, I would have to smile too!

The whole concert is great really, so enjoy it with a nice glass of wine and some kind herbs, and let us know what you thought on the comments below.

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