Three's company as guitar wizards unite for magical gig

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

Trios of virtuoso guitarists are a rarity in jazz - partly, I suppose, because the individual egos involved are too big for any one of them to be content with an accompanist's role for a third of the time on stage.

There's a demand for them, however. People seem to like hearing the competitive streak brought out in fretboard masters, and summit meetings are occasionally held.

Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd toured and recorded for a while as the Great Guitars, and there was no exaggeration in that name, although the night I saw them belonged to Joe Pass, who played superbly on his own as the support act.

In 1980, in a collaboration that has since been periodically renewed for concerts and recording projects, John McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola teamed up and made the acclaimed Friday Night in San Francisco - an album that, by jazz standards, shifted truckloads. People loved the sheer aggression of the playing.

Neither 1982's Passion, Grace and Fire nor 1996's The Guitar Trio from the same players proved quite as successful, perhaps because in the studio, without an audience baying for blood, they played more collaboratively than competitively.

DeLucia is a flamenco rather than a jazz player, of course, and there were also Brazilian elements on those albums, which is one reason I found myself thinking of them when I put on Guitar Sam Guk Ji by another trio of fast and furious pickers - Kazumi Watanabe, Jack Lee, and our own Eugene Pao - who call themselves Asian Super Guitar Project or ASGP. Although there are Asian elements in the music, much of it has a strong Latin influence.

We'll have an opportunity to hear this ensemble during the Hong Kong Arts Festival, on March 9 and 10 at the City Hall Concert Hall, with the great Malaysian drummer/percussionist Lewis Pragasam, who also appears on the album.

The first step towards this collaboration was taken in 1986 when the Live Under the Sky Japanese jazz festival first came to Hong Kong, at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium.

Pao was yet to become Hong Kong's jazz guitar hero nonpareil, and was just a little nervous when Watanabe, already a big name in Japan, asked him to guest on a tune.

Nevertheless, honours were very much equal and a friendship was forged.

Watanabe went on to make the two very successful Spice of Life albums with Bill Bruford and Jeff Berlin, and work more in the US, collaborating with many of the leading lights of fusion jazz and the jazzier areas of rock. For most of those projects he stuck to the electric guitar. Then, in the 1990s, he started to play more acoustically.

Pao also has become more inclined to use acoustic instruments - a cynic would say it's because he's getting older and mellower, but I suspect it's mostly because those guitars are much easier to amplify decently today. He plays electrically here on only one track, Waiting in Rain, composed by Jack Lee.

This is a three-nation project - or four if you count Pragasam - and Lee represents South Korea. The youngest member of the trio, at 40, he has also worked with some big American names, and with Brazilian guitarist and composer Toninho Horta.

Lee appears to be leading the ASGP project, which he says is a great opportunity to play with two guitarists he has admired for many years, but solo space and composition credits are allocated evenly. Pao, Lee and Watanabe contribute two originals apiece, with Horta's For the Children and Astor Piazzolla's Libertango completing the track listing. The ensemble passages are well arranged, and there are some real fireworks on Spanish Fried Rice - making its third appearance on CD and now something of a signature tune for Pao.

The musicians play reflectively on the two South American covers, with For the Children featuring some particularly subtle interaction within what Lee refers to as 'our intimate dialogues in the studio'.

Not much is allowed to get in the way of the guitars. Lee contributes some wordless vocals, but they're mixed well back, and Pragasam, who is capable of drumming with enormous force, adds only the subtlest of percussion parts.

It will certainly be worth hearing how they reinterpret the material live, and it's good to see the Arts Festival presenting a truly international Asian ensemble, which also features a local artist prominently.

Go to if you're interested in a copy of the album.

On the subject of Hong Kong jazz guitarists, this column wishes bon voyage to Australian axeman Guy Le Claire, who is going home after a decade and a half of living mostly in Hong Kong and on the mainland. He has made a major contribution to the local live scene as soloist and sideman, as well as being involved in several worthwhile CD projects.