Thursday, February 27, 2014

¡Venga, Paco!

Paco de Lucia, the great Spanish guitarist who died yesterday, was grievously misunderstood by much of the world, including some of his staunchest fans.

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma has done all sorts of dilettante-ish dabbling, e.g. his misguided attempts at jazz. Nobody judges him by that stuff, just as nobody judges Michael Jordan by his baseball playing. Yet in America Paco de Lucia is thought of as a technically gifted guitarist specializing in atmospheric noodling and collaborations with sparkly-toothed "fusion" types.

As someone who's spent lots of time in Spain, I know that's not who he was. Actually, he was one of the most staunchly traditional flamenco guitarists of his generation. Forget the bloodless image you may have of him and listen to this (one of his many collaborations with the flamenco genius Camaron de la Isla):

It was assumed that when it came to flamenco, Americans couldn't possibly appreciate the real shit. And so none of these recordings with Camaron has been easily available here (this is also why de Lucia stuck to noodly atmospherics outside Spain). I, myself, got lucky. During an early visit to Spain in the 1990's, a local pressed a cassette tape into my hand and urged me to check it out when I got home. It was my first taste of the great Camaron, mesmerizingly backed by a guitarist whose red-blooded ardor was encouraged with shouts of "¡Venga, Paco!". It blew my mind to discover that it was de Lucia. Wait...that guy???

That was who and what Paco de Lucia really was. I became an enormous fan, and have, over the years, scooped up all the Cameron/de Lucia CDs I could get my hands on. And I'd suggest you do likewise.

Here's another taste:

Last, but definitely not lease, this one was recorded in a bar (the only place where flamenco - like jazz - should ever be performed) and absolutely KILLS:

Real Chinese restaurants assume Americans won't like briny, funky fermented bean curd sauce ("foo-yee" in Cantonese, "foo-roo" in Mandarin). It's never on the menu, you always have to beg for it over the waiter's insistence that you won't enjoy it. Yet everyone I've turned onto it loves the stuff (it's best on watercress). Same for real flamenco. Chowhounding, music-hounding, and all other sorts of hounding require looking deeper, crashing through barriers, and seeing past the misdirection. The only alternative is to passively accept and embody the blandness that's expected of you.


fluffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fluffy said...

in America Paco de Lucia is thought of as a technically gifted guitarist specializing in atmospheric noodling and collaborations with sparkly-toothed "fusion" types."
All music is a synthesis of cultures. "pure" flamenco has it's roots in India; Jazz in Africa and Europe:
I'm not sure which "fusion types" you are referring to Jim, but for me, some of Paco's greatest collaborators ( John McLaughlin and Chick Corea ) are certainly not involved with any noodling; atmospheric or otherwise.They are among the most creative and brilliant, not to mention influential musicians in the world. Could you please clarify what you mean ?

Jim Leff said...

I'm not hung up on notions of authentic vs inauthentic. I agree it's a false distinction; culture's always been a melting pot. I just never loved anything I've heard Paco do outside flamenco, strictly from an aesthetic perspective (though I always thoroughly respected his musicianship).

Have you listened to the songs I embedded in the article? If you spend a few minutes doing so, and maintain the opinion that his jazzy stuff was his best work, and John McLaughlin and Chick Corea his greatest collaborators, then we simply have very very different views (not a bad thing; vive la difference of opinion!).

But if you haven't listened to them, then this discussion is one-sided, as I've heard what you've heard, but you haven't heard what I've heard! :)

fluffy said...

I listened to the songs in your article a long time ago man....and I love them too. I'm sure you know that what you refer to as his " flamenco " wasn't given that status by his predecessors ...he earned it , as all great artists do by breaking a mold of what was, and turning it into what is.
Where I differ with you is not in appreciating his roots music as great, but in not appreciating the fact that He loved the exploratory musicians he encountered, and the resulting music too. His need for communication is as much a valid aspect of his personality as anything. I also take issue with your denigration of great artists, artistry, and music just on the basis of your personal tastes, valid as they may be for you. Personally, I don't think of music in terms of best and worst. That kind of categorization defeats the purpose of all expression for me, and turns it into some sort of olympic type competition, which is ultimately irrelevant, and worse, self-defeating.
I would offer that I heard what you heard, but you don't hear what I hear.....but as you say, vive le difference :)-)

Jim Leff said...

Fair points. As a veteran critic in one artform and a veteran performer in a couple others, I'm anything but unversed in the issues you describe.

But I'm unwilling to plunge fully into relativism. I make value judgements about art, you make value judgements about art...we all do, all the time, and there's no sense pretending otherwise, however popular it may be to do so. I have to believe it's appropriate to rave about an earth-shattering lasagna in a way more universal - more useful! - than simply signaling my unique blinkered perspective. It's paradoxical, but both these statements are true: that 1. some lasagnas truly are more or less delicious than others, and that 2. no one lasagna, however great, will thrill ever everyone.

Many people run hog wild with #1, anointing themselves arbiter and assuming dissenters to be philistines. Ugh. The other extreme is to run hog wild with #2, denying the existence of quality as a meaningful parameter outside the completely subjective eye of each individual beholder. Ugh again. Everyone might not love John Coltrane, but it'd be dumb to place him on level par with Kenny G. "Taste" is a real thing, fer sure...yet it's not ALL a matter of taste!

I usually try to find an impossible point of compromise, seeking a reasonably common aesthetic ground (always trying to gauge the potential universality of any given call) while remaining respectful toward other views - especially ones from people who've sympathetically tried mine on for size (as I myself have duly played those Chick and McLaughlin records).

I hope you can feel that respectfulness in this sub-discussion, and I acknowledge that I could have been gentler in the original article without losing the force of what I was trying to say. My bad. One reason is that after decades of observing musicians' shocked delight upon being introduced to Paco's hardcore flamenco stuff (over and over I hear "I never imagined he had that kind of passion!"), I'd mistakenly deemed it a universal reaction. Clearly not.

I'm a jazz musician myself; not a flamenco purist. I'm more inclined to enjoy stuff on the Chick Corea side of things. But I found Paco's playing in that milieu consistently tepid and technical - the very antithesis of his playing with Cameron. Hey, I just didn't dig it. At all. But I'm no dogged absolutist; you don't need to be wrong for me to be right!

But, FYI, your assumption that you've heard the tracks I linked to is incorrect. You're quite right to question my assumptions, but you lose higher ground when you doggedly persist in your own! :)

fluffy said...

Well, perhaps we leave things here man....suffice it to say that I believe we share the opinion that we are all indebted to the beauty, power and majesty of Paco's music....and I feel his loss most a guitar player, and as a man . Peace to you

Val in Seattle said...

Thanks for posting those audios. I'm hooked!
Those are some high prices for the CDs on Amazon. Fortunately, my city library has a couple of Lucia titles. But not with Camaron.
- Val in Seattle

Jim Leff said...

Val, if you see this, shoot me an email.

Pau said...

I know you guys have closed your debate, but let me try to draw your attention to a de Lucía’s work which somehow lies in the middle of the radically opposed styles you have been arguing about. I’m referring to the tune “Entre Dos Aguas”, recorded and released in 1973. That tune was a turning point in both de Lucía’s career and the way flamenco (or flamencoish) music was understood all over the world, including Spain. The infectious groove, “understandable” in comparison with the authentic flamenco ones, supports Paco’s melodic sense and improvisation.

Corea, di Meola (who had just recorded their seminal record “Light as a Feather”), McLaughlin etc., all of them listened attentively to this track and got influenced by it.

"Entre Dos Aguas". Studio version (1973)

"Entre Dos Aguas". TV version (1976)

A very good place to get information about flamenco. Time, tonality, form, lyrics, history ...

Jim Leff said...

Dios mio, Pau, I can't believe you're reading along! It's a miracle for a non-native English speaker to get through it; I don't understand half of what *I* was saying upon rereading!

Thanks for the tip. I'll listen and report back!

Also, just to the discussion at large, I've been pondering my decision-making behind how I expressed my sharp dismissal of De Lucia's jazzy playing. Per above, I can see that it comes off unnecessarily harsh to readers who like that stuff.

The thing is, I'd avoid sharp pronouncements like this in informal conversation. But writing's like playing; you can't let your superego get too much in the way of the emotional truth of what you're trying to express. Politeness can be the death of writing (or any other sort of creativity).

But, that said, I could have retained whatever good was in the article without having been so extreme. You want to be expressive and honest, but there's a line, and I don't think it's possible to never wind up on the wrong side of the line!

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