“Paco de Lucía was as good as Miles Davis and Stravinsky”

British jazz legend John McLaughlin pays tribute to the magic of Paco de Lucía as he talks about their recently released recording, 'Live at Montreux 1987'

Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin at the 1987 San Sebastián Jazz Festival
Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin at the 1987 San Sebastián Jazz FestivalAntonio Alonso (EFE)

“One afternoon I got a call telling me to turn on the radio quick. When I did, I couldn’t believe my ears. I was like, who is this guy? And then the host came on and said, ‘You have just been listening to Paco de Lucia.’ And I thought, ‘My God! I’ve got to meet him, as in right now!…”

British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin is commenting on the recently released DVD/double CD set, Paco & John: Live at Montreux 1987, recorded at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in July 1987.

“I remember that night clearly,” says the jazz guitarist, who recently played at the Noches del Botánico Festival in Madrid. “Paco and I were more in sync than I have ever been with anyone, including Miles Davis. We were two freaks doing all this crazy stuff. We felt we could do anything – you had to see the audience’s reaction to believe it.”

Before wanting to be a jazz musician, I wanted to be a flamenco guitarist. As you can imagine, living in a small town near Scotland, no one knew what flamenco was

John McLaughlin

McLaughlin has experimented with all sorts of sounds in his search for his place in the music world. “As a kid, I was crazy about flamenco,” he says. “Before wanting to be a jazz musician, I wanted to be a flamenco guitarist. As you can imagine, living in a small town near Scotland, no one knew what flamenco was. I was lucky because I had a brother studying in Manchester and I went to see him the last Thursday of every month. One night he sneaked me into a pub – I was underage – and I heard the flamenco guitarist Pepe Martínez. It was a real eye opener.”

Twenty years later, McLaughlin would meet the most influential flamenco guitarist of all time. “After listening to Paco on the radio, I got in touch with his record label and found out that he was in Paris. I sent him a message and two days later, we met up. And I told him, ‘Paco, you are the giant of flamenco – bigger than Sabicas and Ramón Montoya’. So we sat down and started to play. He wasn’t just a great musician, he was a great person and he was as curious about my music as I was about his.”

In 1979, Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin shared a stage in Spain with the guitarist Larry Coryell. “We started to perform a bit to see where it would take us,” he says. “We did a European tour and we discovered that people went crazy during our performances.”

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Then Coryell dropped out due to personal problems and Al Di Meola took his place, and the guitar trio enjoyed an exciting period together. “We became the three tenors of guitar,” says McLaughlin.

But as sometimes happens, the success slipped through their hands – at least as a threesome. “We did an American tour and it was all over the press,” says the Doncaster-born musician. “We filled football stadiums and we sold millions of records… but Meola wasn’t an easy person to work with, so that was probably the reason it didn’t last as long as it might have.”

Real Jazz

From then on, it would be just the two of them – Juanito (John) and Paquito. “We spent a lot of years touring the world together, sharing the good and bad times that come with the job,” recalls McLaughlin. “Paco was a courageous person. It was an era when the purists were out for blood. It seemed ironic. Paco was the king of flamenco guitar. No one came even close. He was the first to work in jazz harmonies and classical music into the flamenco tradition but he paid dearly for it. He was bombarded by criticism from people who didn’t understand what he was doing. I know because I’ve also come in for my share of criticism from the jazz purists. But if you’re innovative, it goes with the territory.”

Two days before Paco de Lucía’s death on February 25, 2014, he called John McLaughlin from his home in Playa del Carmen. “We were working on a record together and he wanted to talk about a piece he particularly liked, called No Pudo Ser,” says McLaughlin. “On my last album, I recorded it under the title, The Man Who Knew.”

The album Live at Montreux 1987 is an unparalleled piece of magic, and as John says, “a testament, perhaps the last, to one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, together with Miles Davis and Igor Stravinsky. I feel privileged to have been able to share part of my life with Paco.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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