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G stands for Guitarra

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By Chris Johnson

Can flamenco, classical, jazz and blues all share the stage at the same time?

Maybe. Probably. Sure.

Absolutely, if the legendary Paco Peña is at the helm.

Currently touring Australia is an ambitious effort to place all of the above guitar styles together not merely on the same concert program, but at times immersed in collaborative performance.

Guitarra is a showcase of guitar styles that only masters of their own genres could pull off.

And when we’re talking masters, they don’t come any more masterful than Spanish virtuoso Paco Peña.

An icon of flamenco guitar (and of the culture of Spain), Paco Peña became a household name in the late 1960s when he unleashed his commanding style of guitar playing on an uninitiated British public.  He even shared a concert with Jimi Hendrix.

His fame shot his name around the world and popularised the flamenco guitar.

Now, at the age of 75, there is pretty much nothing in the guitar realm he hasn’t done.

So performing with a bluesman should be a piece of cake, right?

Right.

The opening night of the Guitarra tour of Australia saw this country’s blues guitarist extraordinaire Phil Manning first appear solo on stage.

With a single acoustic guitar, he played and sang some classic delta blues from the likes of Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and various other sight-impaired artists from the 1920s.

Manning, founding member of Australia’s pioneering hard electric blues band Chain, is a gifted musician who sounds like he is playing two guitars at once.

An excellent way to kick off the concert.

Contrast the earthy blues he played with what came next – Slava and Leonard Grigoryan playing Tchaikovsky and Bach on classical guitars.

This Australian duo, brothers, have revolutionised the appeal of classical guitar in Australia.

Once, classical guitarists would never appear on the same stage as musicians in more contemporary fields.

But then once, the guitar itself was deemed (by some self-appointed guardians of ‘taste’) as not being worthy enough to be considered a classical musical instrument.

Musicians like the Grigoryan Brothers have helped to change that by crossing genres while also holding to the traditions of classical music.

Their performance, which included some of their own compositions, was mesmerizing.

So when Phil Manning brought his steel-string back on stage to join the classical duo, it was a “let’s see how this works” kind of moment for the audience.

Bessie Smith’s Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out never sounded as good as it did with the Grigoryan’s playing blues solos on their classical guitars over Manning’s rootsy playing and singing.

Sacrilege? Not on your life.

Brilliant? Yes!

But that was just the first half of the show.

After the interval, one of Australia’s leading jazz guitarists Jim Pennell captured everyone’s attention with a mix of tunes from the Great American Songbook, some Brazilian standards, and guitar versions of compositions from jazz greats Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk

And then he introduced the man everyone came to see – Paco Peña.

The other guitarists who had played earlier were all outstanding.

And they were all almost instantly forgotten once Peña hit his first note.

The man and the guitar – and subsequently the audience – were one. His performance was compelling.  

He played long malagueñas, bulerías, romances, and soleares.

Stunning.

Peña endeared himself to the audience not only with his more than impressive musicianship, but also with his apparent humility as he chatted away like someone’s adorable old uncle talking about music.

He expressed his admiration for those who had shared the stage that night – and then he invited them all to join him.

It was then that we all remembered how outrageously talented the other guitarists were.

The bluesman played lead, the jazzman noodled solos, the classical brothers roamed all over their fretboards in style, and Paco Peña appeared to be having the time of his life matching their styles.

Then he led them in closing the concert with a breathtaking showcase of flamenco, classical, jazz and blues that all melded into one and kept the entire audience transfixed.

A wonderful celebration of the guitar.

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