Review: Paco de Lucía at LJF 2012

Mark Gilbert says that Paco de Lucía's index of jazz stock – rhythmic drive, complex syncopation, harmonic ambiguity, chromatic tension, creative improvisation, passion and expressivity - is nearer complete than that of much music lodged under the jazz banner

Paco de LucíaThe London Jazz Festival has long spread its programming beyond the bounds of the jazz mainstream, but Paco de Lucía and his octet (let's give them a jazz name) are nominally the least jazz-related of all the headline acts at this year's event. Jan Garbarek, though apparently inspiring one departing punter on Tuesday night to remark "that wasn't .…ing jazz" did play straightahead avant-garde in his early years - smack in the middle of what is now the tradition. Paco de Lucía, by contrast, has never shown any public inclination to imitate a James Blood Ulmer or Bill Frisell.

Paco de Lucía has a long history of appearing on jazz bills, and earlier this year his fellow flamenco guitarist Tomatito was among the performers at Jazzahead in Bremen (and can be seen flaunting his entirely convincing jazz chops in a solo reading of Stella By Starlight on one Spanish TV programme). The De Lucía connection with jazz goes back in most minds to the often febrile cutting contests of the 1980s trio he had with Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin (the latter certainly steeped in the jazz lexicon since the 60s). It was part of the first explosion of musical cross-pollination that has lately become a serious business in jazz promotion.   

So much for the political background. How does the music connect with jazz, if at all? Flamenco is essentially a set of fixed palos or forms but these have been extended and embroidered, especially in the last 30 years or so. Many of the (unannounced) numbers in De Lucía's set at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday clearly moved harmony beyond the traditions of, say, 1970s flamenco, and the music's already existing harmonic sophistication and powerful cadential tension and release have chimed with jazz's chromaticism for longer. Emotionally, one may say flamenco relates closely to the blues, the grave mood of flamenco's signature Phrygian tonality and the lyrical preoccupation with suffering, oppression and betrayal resonating with the blues archetype. Although the musical application is different, like the blues it also typically applies the minor third over the tonic major chord - and often adds the extra piquancy of a flattened ninth. It has been called the blues of Europe and among European folk musics it mirrors most closely the qualities of the American article, even being, some may argue, more bluesy than the blues. Its putative African antecedents would no doubt signify.

Another parallel lies in improvisation. Jazz, allegedly improvised, often relies a good deal on practised cliché, rearranged or inflected as new for the moment. The same interpretative variation in ensembles, singing and dancing (the latter spectacularly demonstrated at the RFH by Farruco) applies in flamenco but there were also at the RFH plenty of jazz-style solo spots, especially in the closing reading of De Lucía's 1973 hit Entre Dos Aguas. It was loudly requested by many in the often ecstatic capacity crowd, which clearly included a sizeable Hispanic contingent. As the guitars seesawed between two chords over the rumba beat the spotlight moved from player to player. We had a solo from harmonica player Antonio Serrano redolent of something Dutch harmonicist and Latinophile Hendrik Meurkens might do and the electric bassist Alain Perez drew Pastorius-like lines and more from his five- or six-string instrument. Paco hit the highest guitar note of the evening to an explosion of applause.

This wasn't an evening of jazz and it's likely De Lucía would reject the description but ironically the music's index of traditional jazz stock – rhythmic drive, complex syncopation, harmonic ambiguity, chromatic tension, creative improvisation, passion and expressivity - was nearer complete than that of much music lodged under the jazz banner.

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