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A tribute to Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucía’s Classic Performance, “FRIDAY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO”

Curtis Jones

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New JGT Series: Acoustic Guitar & Jazz

Intro by Bob Bakert, JGT editor: Down through the years ‘jazz guitar’ has come to mean carved  ‘archtops’, usually models by  Gibson, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Benedetto and hundreds of other dedicated luthiers.  These “Jazz boxes” are all roughly based on violin style f holed carved construction.  However, there is a long rich heritage of jazz being played on flat top acoustic guitars that has been a little lost in the last few decades.  Pat Metheny opened a show on his flat top and Julian Lage is a recent very visible contributor to improvisational, contemporary music played on a flat top.  We at JGT are starting a series of articles featuring the rich history of this music played on these instruments by John McGlaughlin and Larry Coryell to bluegrass innovator Tony Rice.

Enjoy this first installment written by Bluegrass virtuoso Curtis Jones and the effect “Friday Night in San Francisco” had on him. And if you have a favorite player on a flat top that you would like considered for a future installment please contact me HERE.

“Friday Night in San Francisco”, what it means to me…

Flatpicking guitarist and contributor Curtis Jones

I remember touring with a Bluegrass band in Europe many years ago. One late night, there was a knock on my hotel door. It was my fellow bandmate and he said ” Quick! Turn on the tele & check out these three guitarists!’.

The guitarists on the television were playing a live show that was filmed earlier and the concert was being featured on this German TV station. The players were Al Di Meola, John Mclaughlin, and Flamenco master Paco De Lucia. To say that I was blown away as well as speechless is an understatement.  Growing up in Bluegrass Music, I thought I understood the meaning of speed, accuracy, timing, tone, and technique. This gave an entirely different meaning to those definitions. Not only was the music intense, powerful, beautiful, deep in culture, complex in melody, improvisation, and chord language; it was played to perfection.  That night in that hotel room would forever change what I thought of music and would also inspire my own musical direction. 

The next morning, I set out on my journey to the local record stores in search of the incredible music played by these three guitar wizards.  The record I found was “Friday Night In San Francisco” by what is known as The Guitar Trio. I bought a vinyl & a CD of it so that I could listen to it in the tour van. It is what I now consider to be the Greatest Guitar Recording Of All Time. I actually named this album ” The Humbler Record”! I would find it very difficult to believe that any guitarist, at any level, of any genre could listen to this scorching playing and not feel like they have so much more to master on their instrument. Yet, at the same time, feel very inspired to practice and take their own playing to a higher level both spiritually and technically. 

Two things that I think are overlooked on this record and within Al Di Meola’s, John McLaughlin’s, and Paco De Lucia’s playing and music are: 

 1)  The vast musical journey all three players take the listener on. A very strong influence from all over the world can be heard at every corner and turn of this music. Strong elements of Jazz, Gypsy, Flamenco, Middle Eastern, and American Folk Music styles make an appearance.      

2)  All three guitarists are playing acoustic guitars. John & Al are both playing Steel Stringed Ovations while Paco is playing his trusty Nylon Stringed Flamenco guitar.  All three players used on-stage mics. John & Al also plugged into the sound system for more volume. 

The tone all three players achieve on this recording is simply incredible. The sheer power of these acoustic guitars in the hands of these three masters is still astonishing! I have listened to “Friday Night In San Francisco” countless times. With every listen, I hear something fresh, new, and never walk away without feeling inspiration. In the world of Jazz Guitar, it is not so difficult to find many examples of amazing and visionary playing on Archtop, Hollowbody, and even on Solid Body Electric Guitars. However, it is a little trickier to find it on Acoustic Steel Stringed guitars.  We owe this recording of Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, & Paco De Lucia a great deal of gratitude for improving such a dilemma. Another invaluable lesson to be learned from these three guitar masters is that we should all, no matter what instrument we play, be open to music in other cultures. You never know what may inspire up and coming ideas that could take our art to a whole new level.

 Jazz writer and critic, Walter Kolosky, described “Friday Night In San Francisco” as ” A Musical Event That Could Be Compared To The Benny Goodman Bands Performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938. He also said that ” It May Be Considered The Most Influential Of All Live Acoustic Guitar Albums”. I would have to whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Kolosky. I have been Inspired and touched by many acoustic recordings in my life but this one stands out heads above the rest. 

“Friday Night In San Francisco” was recorded Friday, December 5th, 1980 live at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco California.

However, “Guardian Angel” was recorded later in New York. The album was released on August 10th, 1981. The record opens with a fiery version of ” Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho. It was composed and performed by Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. This piece is 11:25 minutes of pure musical genius, power, rhythmic ecstasy, and technical wizardry. Al on his Ovation plays with such amazing speed, accuracy, and power that it is very hard to believe that what he is doing is even physically possible on an acoustic guitar. More importantly here, is that he is doing it on an Acoustic- he doesn’t sound like an electric player trying to play acoustic. The melody lines are woven with some amazing Flamenco rhythmic sense and Latin feel. This makes a perfect bed for Al and Paco to improvise and trade some of the most interesting lines ever captured on tape! Both players go to places that are absolutely jaw-dropping. Another thing to listen for here is the genius rhythm playing of Paco De Lucia. It is a clinic on perfect timing, tone, and feel.  On this first track, it is evident that the people attending this concert will be treated to an evening of magic sounds and guitar playing at the highest level possible.

As in 1977, still available on vinyl.

Song Two is a duet from Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin of Chick Corea’s “Short Tales Of The Black Forest”. It is 8:39 minutes of Al & John trading blistering licks and triplets. It is technical bliss. They also show their extensive knowledge of many forms of music here by incorporating hints of other pieces including ” The Pink Panther”, “The Blues”, and even a short mention of the ” Dueling Banjos”  theme from the film ” Deliverance”.

Song Three sees the duo of Paco De Lucia & John McLaughlin performing a haunting and beautiful rendering of Egberto Gismonti’s “Frevo Rasgado”. On this track, John & Paco interweave with each other beautifully. Each player’s tone is fat, warm, and brilliant. At times in this track, it’s a little tricky to determine who is playing what part. What a great compliment to each player! You get the feeling that Paco & John are very familiar with the others playing, phrasing, and feel. By doing this, they create a masterpiece that is simply unforgettable.

Song Four has Al, Paco, and John exploding lightening fast runs all together on the very exceptional Al Di Meola composition, “Fantasia Suite”. All three players here deliver a high energy, toneful, and complex performance while accompanying each other masterfully. You can hear on this track the respect and friendship that all three of these players share for each other as they blend together flawlessly. This track is a great one to listen to each player’s tone and phrasing! Al’s attack here is aggressive, powerful, and clean. His playing, as always, is super-human fast as well! John’s playing is also super-human fast, clean, and powerful. It is really nice to hear the difference here in John and Al’s attack, tone, and musical ideas. Paco is playing a nylon stringed Flamenco guitar on this track. He also plays with his fingers making his tone much different. Being a Spanish Flamenco master, his musical ideas come across very different yet fitting for the music being played. His speed, tone, and sense of time are all astonishing and his technique is showcased ‘big time’ in this piece of music. The sound that the Trio produces in this piece is simply amazing. The speed of the counterparts are mind blowing!

The Fifth and final song is John McLaughlin’s ” Guardian Angel”. It was recorded live in the studio at Minot Sound in White Plains, New York in 1981. This composition is absolutely beautiful! It is a bit more laid back than the rest of the record. It gives the listener time to catch a deep breath and hear three acoustic guitars played masterfully with very nice full reverb and tasteful ideas coming from all three guitarists. 

Before the release of Friday Night In San Francisco, it would be very hard to imagine three guitar players on three acoustic guitars playing to a huge sold out crowd, with screaming fans coming out of their seats for blistering triplets. It would also be hard to imagine an all instrumental recording with three acoustic guitarists selling as many copies as Friday Night In San Francisco has. The recording of this album truly is monumental. It has done so much for Acoustic Guitar, Jazz, and Instrumental Music in general. As a huge fan of Paco De Lucia, John McLaughlin, and Al Di Meola’s entire bodies of work, “Friday Night In San Francisco” holds a very special place in my heart. They are all playing the instrument that is most dear to me- the Acoustic Guitar! I feel they really brought out the best in each other and really pushed one another to be the very best that they could be. This was also the album that made me realize that the Acoustic Guitar can be as loud and powerful as an Electric Guitar, it can be played with as much expression, and it can absolutely be played as fast.  Thank you Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and the late Paco De Lucia for ” Friday Night In San Francisco”! It will forever be a game changer.  

As I sit here on the docks of Lake Erie, PA writing this article, I am listening to “Friday Night In San Francisco” on my iPod. I am once again reminded how important this body of work is. I am also flooded with memories of the first time I heard it.  I still come alive hearing this timeless music at the height of its Passion, Grace, & Fire.                           

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