For Paco de Lucia, 1980 will always be a year of great pain, and of a great breakthrough.
A flamenco guitarist since the age of 7, De Lucia has always been accustomed to soloing, since improvisation is an inherent aspect of flamenco, the compelling music from the Spanish state of Andalusia.
But when De Lucia, regarded as one of the finest proponents of flamenco, teamed up with jazz guitarists John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola in 1980 for a world tour, he quickly found out that, as an improviser, he was in way over his head.
“I suffer a lot. In flamenco, we have scales that we improvise on, not cycles of chords, as they have in jazz,” said De Lucia. “And those chords go by fast, like telephone poles when you are on a train. I am in angustia , how you say, anguish, after each concert. I finish with pain in my back. I ask myself, ‘Why I am here?’ But something inside my head said I had to do it, because someday I would understand.”
That day came during the same tour, when De Lucia, who doesn’t read much music and improvises by ear, started to catch on to chordal-style jazz soloing.
“When I made a little discovery, I started to breath and relax,” De Lucia, 45, said in halting English by phone from his hotel in Anaheim. De Lucia and his sextet perform Friday at the Celebrity Theatre.
“Then I find out it is not enough just to play some notes--you must say something.”
After that tour, which resulted in two Columbia Records albums with his co-stars, De Lucia began to add jazz-flavored soloing into his own shows, which up to that point had been fairly traditional flamenco presentations.
“I’m very happy to improvise,” he said. “I need it now. I cannot play compositions all the time, because I get bored. I need to take the risk of improvisation.”
Still, De Lucia considers himself basically a flamenco artist.
“I am a curious musician,” he said. “I try to go different ways, but the only way I can show my deep feelings is through flamenco. It’s the music where I feel secure. Flamenco is very important, original, spontaneous, very emotional. It’s the only music that makes me cry.”
Traditional flamenco music spotlights a singer, a dancer, a person who claps and a guitarist. The musical forms are bulerias , fandangos and rumbas. De Lucia’s version of the art form includes generous helpings of improvisation, and an expanded ensemble, which boasts a bass player, a saxophonist and an additional guitarist. He said that his sextet format arose both from his experiences with McLaughlin and DiMeola, and through serendipity.
“These are musicians I play with, they are my friends, and we just decided to start playing together. It wasn’t planned,” said De Lucia, a native of Algeciras, a small village on the coast of southern Spain. “And when we first started, a lot of people were against us. Now everybody uses” this size of ensemble.
In flamenco, the improvisational passages are called falsettas , brief rhythmic fragments that contain a specific number of beats. It’s how a musician fares during the falsettas that determines whether his improvisation is a success, De Lucia said.
“You have to tell a story, make a beginning, middle and end in the falsetta, you have to create the ole, " he said. “If the player doesn’t provoke the ole, that means the solo is not good, not strong.”
What is the message De Lucia tries to get across during performances?
“It’s difficult to say with words. Music is an abstraction. It’s like asking a painter what a painting means. But something that is very clear is that people do not sleep when I play. That’s very important,” he said, laughing.
De Lucia, whose latest album is “Zyryab,” plays an acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar. He uses a microphone, rather than attaching a pick-up and using an amplifier, because he wants a physical sensation when he plays.
“I need to feel the sound of the guitar in my stomach. If I use an electric guitar, the sound feels very far away.”
A professional musician before his teens, De Lucia toured the United States with Jose Greco at age 12, and became a bandleader a few years later.
De Lucia’s current tour of North and South America continues through April. He said it’s possible that sometime in the near future he will hook up with McLaughlin and DiMeola once again.
“It would be nice,” he said.
Would he be more relaxed this time? “Of course,” he said with an easy laugh.
These days, although he occasionally tours as a soloist, he prefers working in the family atmosphere of his sextet.
“It’s a different kind of emotion than when you are playing alone, which can be heavy for an audience if they don’t understand guitar,” he said. “And if I go on the road solo, I get bored.”
* Paco de Lucia’s sextet plays Friday 8 p.m., at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. $33 to $38. (714) 535-2000.