A forever friend, a fickle beast, a spurning love, a symbol, a weapon, a mating call, an object of longing, desire, jealousy and obsession. To the listener it is a magic wand and to the player it is infinity in strings.
To misquote Rachmaninov: a lifetime is not enough for the guitar, but the guitar is enough for a lifetime. Every live-long musical explorer discovers this truth at some point in their pointless journey, and to most it makes no difference whatsoever. Once one is truly hooked there is nothing left but to sacrifice this collection of solar orbits to the meticulous lengthening and shortening of strings. To become another slave to the sine wave, all in the service of vibrating the air around us.
A worthy pursuit, indeed.
The great (and mostly unknown) jazz pianist Brian Browne (1937-2018) once told me that you can tell a real player from a weekend warrior in the first four bars and he was right (though it only really works if the person listening is a real player)*. But there are players and then there are players. Different musicians are bound to achieve different levels and there are a myriad of different levels within those levels, but then there are those rarified players that are so dripping with musical mastery they create hitherto unknown levels that pierce through universally accepted boundaries. These musical unicorns make their presence unmistakable on the first beat of bar one. One note is all you need to know you’re in the presence of true greatness.
Which brings me to the Ottawa jazz festival on a chilly June 29th evening in 2011, when the truly great Paco de Lucía played flamenco guitar on the main stage.
Did I say “great”?!? I can’t even…there are lots of “great” flamenco guitarists in the world***. Heck, the genre itself implies such a musical obsession/dedication that almost everyone who becomes notably proficient in the style gets called “great” at some point. But Paco de Lucía (1947-2014) was above them all. Paco was one of those impossible musicorns I was referring to: a breakthrough virtuoso musician who became the poster child for his discipline and a man who the greatest players of his era bowed to like he was a musical deity.
I’ve never been anywhere close to being an aficionado of the flamenco scene so I can’t tell you what songs he played. But even if I did throw out a title or two do you suppose you would be humming them? Me neither. I can tell you that Paco sat in a chair with his guitar nestled between his legs and he stopped the musical world with his first fluttering strum. He encapsulated his summit of knowledge of the genre in the first bar and was propelling far beyond the previously-known flamenco universe before he finished the first piece. There was so much in his music; ”professionalism” doesn’t quite tackle it, nor does “proficiency”. I suppose “genius virtuosity” comes close. Whatever it was, he put it into every note and anyone who heard it could instantly recognize it. In short, watching Paco de Lucía play the guitar was an honour to all who had the privilege to do so.
It staggers me to imagine how much I would have liked the show if I actually had any appreciation whatsoever for flamenco, which I don’t. But just like the rest of the world I have an innate appreciation for greatness so I still walked away stunned to the core.
*I first heard Brian play when he walked into the music store I was working at and asked if he could try one of the Steinway grands we had in the showroom**. I didn’t know him from Adam; I told him he was welcome to play any of the pianos he liked and turned back to my business. But when he sat down and dropped his hands on the first chord – the first chord I tell you – I stopped whatever it was I was doing and turned slowly back around, my jaw already plummeting to the floor. I stood transfixed behind the counter with my heart in my throat as Brian fluttered through jazz standards for the ensuing fifteen minutes. I tell you, Brian Browne was a player and I didn’t need no four bars to find out.
**Lauzon Music was and remains a world-class grade A #1 music emporium, and back when they were the only Steinway dealer in town we used to get a lot of heavies coming in to try out the wares. I tell you, I used to hear some astoundingly good music while I twiddled around pricing guitars and fighting off hangovers.
***I am exuding such respect for Mr. de Lucía that I’ve decided to refrain entirely from my standard joke of always referring to “flamenco” as “flamingo”. I realize that about 85% of the general public also make the same joke but I’m the only one who’s actually doing it as a joke, which is the joke. It’s not easy to do with a straight face (especially as a somewhat professional musician) and nobody ever laughs. Such is the bane of the comedic “player”. But like I say, out of reverence for the great Paco I’ve deleted all unasterisked flamingo references from this posting. I thought it would be hard to do but it was a bit of a relief, really.