This week brought the sad news of the untimely passing of Paco de Lucía. In his native Spain he was a cultural figure of immense importance, and his uniquely successful career conferred such stature upon him that his fame had spread far beyond the confines of flamenco enthusiasts (admittedly a global constituency). I don’t think many would dispute that he was one of the great musicians of the late 20th century–one of the select few who, like Charlie Parker, Mstislav Rostropovich or Ravi Shankar, were able through their complete mastery of their instrument to transcend their chosen genre and gain universal recognition for the honesty, originality and creative vitality of their performance.
Paco was only 66 when he died; many jazz musicians from the classic era never made it to 70, the victims of hard living and emphysema. Other parallels have been drawn between jazz and flamenco; both forms have a tradition of virtuosity, with a legacy of superstar players passing the music down through the generations; both value spontaneity in performance; both are linked to dance (jazz, it must be acknowledged, considerably less so than formerly); both of them rely on a thorough knowledge of traditional forms as a springboard for extended improvisations, which are at the heart of what makes each music come alive. In a broader context, both arose in an outsider culture, associated with an oppressed and excluded people; both were vehicles for the expression of that people’s complaints and ambitions, and both emerged from the confines of their origins to become instantly identifiable, global brands and ambassadors for the countries who often treated their creators so shoddily. The historical periods of gestation and development are similar–flamenco seems to have emerged as a recognisable form somewhat earlier but both musics underwent an accelerated growth spurt in the early 20th century. Even the histories of some of the key players have definite resonances and you can imagine Billie Holiday and la Niña de los Peines finding a lot to talk about if they had ever met.
However, there are more than a few fundamental differences, and these are instructive as well. Jazz has African roots but it is an American music, and from the start it was eclectic, commercial, and cosmopolitan in outlook. Flamenco is a more austere and traditional form, closely associated despite its global appeal with the language culture of the Andalusian gitanos, and perhaps as a result it seems to have retained as a result it seems to have retained more of its outsider status; Paco’s partner, Camarón de la Isla, was a rebel genius with a public profile more like a rock star than anything found among the increasingly bespectacled and tweedy jazz fraternity. In terms of actual musical vocabulary there are as many differences as similarities; jazz has no equivalent of the compas, the set rhythmic pattern that characterises flamenco, while flamenco doesn’t have the same diversity of form and harmony as the infinitely flexible jazz. The dominant timbres are very different as well; the nylon string guitar hardly features in jazz; yet when Paco and others of his generation wanted to expand the palette available to progressive flamenco artists, they looked to incorporate instruments from the jazz world; flute, saxophone, double bass, piano and even drumkit to supplement the cajon brought back from Latin America. He must have seen that jazz provided a fruitful territory for flamenco to move into. Was this down to purely musical compatibility, or were there other, external factors at work?
Paco will be most familiar to jazz fans because of a series of tours and albums that teamed him up with fusion heavyweights John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, especially 1981’s Friday Night In San Francisco. Although he later claimed to be totally out of his depth with the sophisticated harmony used by the other players, to the extent that he suffered back pain and headaches, it’s his contributions that really make the album come alive; his passion and the depth and subtlety of his musicianship sometimes seem to show up the others’ playing as flashy, technically flawless but empty displays of virtuosity. The album came at a particular low point in jazz’s fortunes; the saxophone, trumpet, acoustic bass and piano were all in retreat before the all-conquering electric guitar, synth and bass guitar. It was the golden age of the superstar guitarist, and the popularity of the soprano sax is surely partly explained by its ability to mimic nasal, squealing frequency of a guitar-god solo. Paco perhaps helped to inject some of the soulfulness that flamenco had in common with jazz’s roots back into the music. Jazz has often tried to incorporate other diverse musical forms, from afro-cuban experiments to the self-consciously exotic forays of Yusef Lateef, from John Mayer and Joe Harriot to the modern experimentation of Tigran Hamasyan, and these have often been when the music has felt in search of an audience. Ultimately, you cannot ignore the fact that Paco’s forays into jazz were driven at least partly by promoters and record labels recognising the most significant similarity between flamenco and jazz; they appeal to many of the same sort of people, creating a truly global cross-over audience that ensures both forms’ survival.