June 24, 2022

… mind-warping co-ordinated answering phrases, that bounce around the listener’s head like a squash ball…

This astonishing trio of acoustic guitar virtuosi – or at least something very much like it – first came to my attention in 1982. I turned on the TV, and there was a 1979 recording of three stunningly brilliant guitar players seated in front of an audience, playing stupendous and emotionally communicative licks in telepathic unison – I was familiar with John McLaughlin through his Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff and also his collaborations with Carlos Santana; flamenco wizard Paco de Lucia was a new name to me, as was the baby-faced Larry Coryell, but I was blown away by all three of them. Although I searched one and off for years to find a vinyl record of the event, all I could find was a record named Friday Night In San Francisco, which was basically the same act, but featuring Al Di Meola instead of Coryell. I held off buying it for a long time because I thought it just wouldn’t be the same – and I wanted to hear exactly what I had seen that night. It turns out that the original concert was only ever released as a video though, so after a few years I capitulated and bought the CD with Di Meola. And wow, it was just as good.

The concert was recorded at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco in December 1980, slightly after the Coryell incarnation, and released in April 1981. However, it was a two-night run, and the story goes that Al Di Meola and his team have now unearthed the tapes from Saturday night too – hence this new offering to the jazz world, the similarly-packaged Saturday Night In San Francisco. That’s the official story anyway. The original Friday Night album was only 40 minutes long, as was traditional for a single vinyl LP, and that included a studio-recorded number by the three guitarists, so it’s clear that it didn’t include the entire Friday night set. Furthermore, there is plenty of discussion on online forums suggesting that some of the record was taken from the Saturday night show in any case. However that may be, the new CD is somewhat longer at 50 minutes, and none of the track titles are the same, although there are similarities: Splendido Sundance instead of the original Mediterranean Sundance, Trilogy Suite instead of Fantasy Suite, that kind of thing. How much of that might be because of similarity between the tracks, and how much just pure coincidence, would be interesting to know; similarly, how much of the arrangements were carefully worked out in advance, and how much were jammed on the spot. As before, the audience sounds immediate and up-close, following every note and cheering their appreciation in places, as well as occasionally shushing each other down!

Left to right: Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia (photo: Christian Rose/Fastimage)

Nevertheless, the new record is all different material from the old, but just as spine-tinglingly superb; the new set also features a spoken intro by compère Bill Graham. As before though, not all of the performances involve all three guitarists; the first track Splendido Sundance is a seven-minute exposition by all three, but then McLaughlin plays a solo acoustic rendition of One Word, previously known from the 1973 Mahavishnu Orchestra record Birds Of Fire. Di Meola follows with Trilogy Suite, then de Lucia plays Monasterio de Sal as a solo piece, from the 1981 album Sólo Quiero Caminar, which he recorded with his sextet.

Which is all great and highly impressive, but if you want to hear some real playing, then the eight-minute El Pañuelo, featuring all three, is a masterpiece. The three guitarists are separated in the stereo pan, which makes for some interesting effects, especially under headphones. This number features a bit of bongo-tapping on the guitars in the intro, then some mind-warping co-ordinated answering phrases later on, that bounce around the listener’s head like a squash ball.

Friday Night In San Francisco, from 1981

The three musicians then re-convene for the Mahavishnu classic Meeting Of The Spirits, which they don’t seem to want to end – it grinds to a halt at four minutes, then restarts, then stops and reboots again at eight minutes, stretching to well over 13 minutes in the end, but is mesmerising the whole way through. There’s a bit of a change for the last piece; progressive jazz fusion is thrown over for some tasteful and melodic chord structures in the highly accessible Orpheo Negro.

The three-guitar-and-nothing-else format makes for some nice features; for instance, as previously mentioned, each one is allocated their static place in the stereo mix, so it’s easier to tell who is playing what, and to pick out the physical differences between the instruments. Paco stays with his Flamenco style, playing a Spanish guitar with his fingernails, as might be expected. Al and John, both better known for their jazz-rocking electric guitar skills, also play acoustics, but Di Meola plays his steel-strung (as did Larry Coryell), while McLaughlin plays his nylon-strung, but still picking with a plectrum. The contrasting styles give each instrument a different sound and character, although it would be hard to decide which suits the music better. In any case, the listener is treated to a musical feast, and I for one am happy that the 1981 album has at last found this companion.

Saturday Night In San Francisco is released on 1st July 2022 via earMusic