Paco de Lucía, the 66-year-old Spanish guitarist who died last February, was to flamenco what Bob Marley was to reggae. During his half-century career, he transformed a hermetically insular style associated with disreputable outcasts (gypsies) into a universally acclaimed art form.
Born in Algeciras into a musical family, de Lucía recorded his first album at 14 with his brother Pepe. Albums with another brother, Ramón de Algeciras, and Ricardo Modrego followed. And if the title of de Lucía’s 1967 solo debut, La fabulosa guitarra de Paco de Lucía, was hyperbolic, the title of his eighth solo album, which followed just five years later, was an understatement.
El duende flamenco de Paco de Lucía (translation: The Flamenco Elf), found de Lucía in full command of both his instrument and his vision of what flamenco could become. Backed by a tastefully arranged orchestra, his fluid and breathtaking virtuosity took on a crystalline, genre-transcending luminosity.
“The gypsies are very good at interpreting flamenco,” he’d told an interviewer one year before. “They are true artists. But they create very few new things because they have a fear of reality. They improve in terms of technique, but not in inventiveness.”
From El duende flamenco onward, neither technique nor inventiveness would be a problem. That he would come to the attention of, and be treated as an equal by, the non-flamenco world was inevitable.
Excerpts of his Dec. 5, 1980, Warfield Theatre concert with the jazz guitarists Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin were released as Friday Night in San Francisco and made Billboard’s jazz Top 10. The following night’s show was filmed and, with a subscription, can be viewed at concertvault.com.
The footage is riveting. Eyes closed and free of his flamenco fetters, de Lucía takes improvisatory flights that make even Di Meola and McLaughlin grin.
“You have to have a very balanced emotional state,” he said in 1986. “That’s why I close my eyes when I play. If you open them and see people talking or some guy yawning, the whole performance falls apart. When I close my eyes, I manage to focus much better.”
His playing was a lot like prayer that way.
And although the title of his 1983 studio recording with McLaughlin and Di Meola—Passion, Grace & Fire—may have summed him up, he kept going, determined to make the most of his newfound popularity.
Nearly 20 albums—solo and collaborative—followed. Highlights included Concierto de Aranjuez (1991), in which he acquitted himself within a high-cultural milieu, performing works by Joaquín Rodrigo and Isaac Albéniz; “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” (1995), an international hit by Bryan Adams; and Luzia (1998), a masterly tribute to his recently deceased mother.
“[E]ach album is a very painful delivery,” he said at the time. “I come up with a line that I enjoy thoroughly, and for five minutes I can be the happiest person in the world, but after those five minutes insecurity and fear and uncertainty come back. What am I doing here when I could be enjoying the sunshine of the beach?”
Unbeknownst to him, he was not only pondering his creative process but also predicting his death. It was on a Mexican beach, while he was playing with the children of his second marriage, that a heart attack finally brought his passion, grace, and fire to an end.
At least temporarily. Song Adalucian, a recently completed album, is scheduled for 2014 release. As de Lucía’s musical last will and testament, it will no doubt fan the flame of his singularly remarkable influence.