When Paco de Lucia took the stage of Avery Fisher Hall here last week, all it took to bring down the house was a well-dressed man, his well-played guitar and a bedrock of Spanish tradition. Make that a malleable bedrock.
De Lucia is one of flamenco's superstars but also one of its true adventurers. Though deeply respectful of his roots, De Lucia pushes the tradition and incorporates jazz and world-music elements into the music born in Andalusia.
These days, he doesn't only go it alone. During the course of the New York concert, De Lucia performed solo and with various groupings of his 14-year-old sextet, which includes two of his brothers and percussionist Joaquin Grilo, whose flamboyant and intricately rhythmic dancing brought the Avery Fisher crowd to its feet.
At the heart of it, though, is the guitarist's virtuosity, his ability to improvise with elegance and burning fret-board technique. Most important, he has mastered the delicate balance of precision and passion integral to this music.
Backstage after the concert, the guitarist loosened his tie and sat down for an interview, while a greenroom full of well-wishers awaited his appearance. While he has toured the world for many years and has recorded 30 albums, De Lucia's current three-week tour of the United States, which stops Tuesday in Costa Mesa, is his longest yet in this country.
"Things are getting better," he said in his Spanish-accented English. "Every time we come, we have a bigger crowd. It's like that everywhere, in every country in the world."
As audience demographics go, De Lucia's crowd is unusually diverse.
"It was always like that," he said, "with different kinds of people--young, old, into classical and jazz and rock. It's nice. I like that. Sometimes pure flamenco people don't like that, because I play rumbas sometimes, and they think that it's not pure."
Purism holds nothing on him. For many listeners, one of the guitarist's main claims to fame has been his series of jazz-flamenco "summit meetings" with guitarists John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola (and, occasionally, Larry Coryell), beginning in the early '80s. The trio plans to record and tour again next year. The guitarists till a common, cross-cultural ground, where fast, intricate guitar lines converge in a kind of vivid musical conversation.
Jazz musicians such as DiMeola and McLaughlin and keyboardist Chick Corea--a flamenco aficionado who has collaborated and recorded with De Lucia--may respond to the dynamic rhythmic approach of flamenco. In turn, De Lucia admires the sophistication of jazz improvisation.
"In flamenco, we don't know music in the literal way," he explained. "We haven't gone to school to learn harmonies and music, so everything we play is by ear. I like jazz musicians very much for the way they go into the harmonies that they work with."
Part of De Lucia's musical agenda has to do with boosting the role of harmony in his music. "In flamenco, the rhythm is more important than the harmony. Now we are trying to make the harmony as important."
Improvisation plays an important part in flamenco, often based on elaborate variations on simple themes.
"It depends on the song," De Lucia said. "With some songs, we improvise in a way that jazz musicians improvise, over a chord structure. But in pure flamenco music, we improvise in another way. We change phrases and other things, but basically it's a composition that will move depending on the mood we have.
"Flamenco has to be very precise. Improvisation cannot be that precise to make our musical expression and our idiosyncrasies. Improvisation is a way of looking for something, as in jazz, and then you have to be very precise with melodies and rhythms."
He was born Francisco Sanchez Gomez in 1947, in the town of Cadiz in Southern Spain, and adopted the stage name Paco de Lucia in honor of his mother, Lucia Gomez. First taught by his brother Ramon de Algeciras--currently in De Lucia's band--and Nino Ricardo, De Lucia developed skills that set him on a road to international acclaim.
Is flamenco, a style sometimes considered to be a folk tradition with a serious concert-music alter ego, often misunderstood?
"Yes, especially the singing," De Lucia said. "The singing is very important to the whole feeling, because you have to grow up with it. It's not easy to follow. In the rhythm, you have a lot of intention, so if you don't know the basic rhythm, you cannot see the subtleties, and you lose a lot of things. But in a way, it's attractive to people, even if they don't understand it."
Clearly there is more to De Lucia's life than playing the guitar well. In his travels, he is well aware of his role as an emissary for the music.
"It makes me very happy to have, in some way, showed what this music from the South of Spain is about," he said.
"This music was not well-accepted in the society. For the society in our country, it was the music of the bars and the whorehouses. It was really never prestigious or respected. That is the mission I have, to show people that I love this music and want positive things to happen with it. I want to show the world, to open the door for other people."
* Paco de Lucia and Sextet play Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $10 to $37. (714) 553-2422.