Al Di Meola: Head and Heart


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By Dennis Cook

It's a small wonder that Al Di Meola isn't a major player in the jam scene. His pioneering work while just 20-years-old in Return To Forever alone should bestow the same elder statesman status as John Scofield and other electric jazz and fusion groundbreakers enjoy. Perhaps it's because Di Meola has cut his own swath through the music world since the beginning, never teaming up with anyone for anything other than musical reasons and never courting easy favor in the ways some of his peers have. No, for Di Meola there is the music in his head and heart and that is what he must follow, for good or bad, often frustrating those fans that would have him shred guitar like in his early days to the exception of everything else.

Di Meola's latest effort with his World Sinfonia, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody (released March 15 on Telarc) is one of the strongest in a career that stretches widely and admirably over close to four decades. Within this song cycle one finds romance, playful expression, serious intent and one of the finest mixtures of electric and acoustic instrumentation yet mustered by this veteran player-composer. Facile descriptions may lump Radical Rhapsody into the world music pile but more careful listening reveals a tunesmith who simply won't be confined by geographic or stylistic boundaries. And the man still works the strings like almost no one else, fleet and daring and combining elements that simply wouldn't occur to a lesser musician. His crack, road tested band keeps pace with him throughout an album that could be great jumping-in point for jam kids looking to add some subtlety and sophistication to their listening.

We had the great privilege of speaking with Di Meola about his newest chapter, his history in Return To Forever and the fusion world, the influence of Astor Piazzolla and more.

JamBase: The new record is very accessible but it also rewards one's study by offering layers to explore. Perhaps a good layer to begin with is the title. What is the pursuit of radical rhapsody?

Al Di Meola: I was on such a long journey to find a title that was appropriate or clever mixed with appropriate. I think it's kind of cool because [the album] is about finding a middle ground between appealing to serious guitarist fan and a more widely appealing aesthetic. And I think we've done that.

JamBase: I think you're correct in identifying that split in your career. Some of the music you've made has been for the hardcore guitar/music heads, and other music has been for a more general public. Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody strikes a nice balance between these two halves of your creativity.

Al Di Meola: It's not an easy thing to do. It took a lot of hard work to get that balance. What I did this time was tour with this group for a year—bringing in all kinds of really good changes to the music as we went along—and then we went into a really good studio with one of the best engineers in the business and cut the record. It really differentiates itself from some of the other records that I've done. The buzz on this one is better than anything I've seen since the 70s, which is refreshing.

There is an interest in the kind of music you make today that's akin to the first flourish in the 1970s, an audience open to this sound, another generation open to what you do.

We get a whole lot of dads coming with their kids, and their kids—often for the first time—are turned on by it in a big way. This music, electric fusion, is catching on again, but the difference is a lot of women are interested now. That's WAY different to the Return To Forever experience and my early years doing the electric fusion thing. At that time it was all guys.

Footage from that time is all hairy dudes with serious expressions with their arms crossed, probably stoned�

�and girlfriends that were dragged along. But, this is a whole different thing that I've been building for the past 15 years or more that's really now coming to fruition. It's already happened in Europe, where I've had success again even more than in the States. Because of the mix of musics, it's really taken off. Plus, they much more appreciate acoustic music in Europe. It's the States that yearn still for the electric edge. So, I strive to make the electric work with the acoustic, which can be a tricky thing to do, especially since we don't have a keyboard player in the band. We have an accordion player and that's keyboard-ish, but to do that successfully was a real trick. On record, I think we really pulled it off, and live, I think we're really pulling it off, too.

What you do too often gets lumped in with the generic header �world music.� Musicians don't think of music in this way. They don't categorize music by genre.

All of the terms—every single one of them—is for lack of a better term [laughs]. Jazz-rock was for lack of a better term, and fusion and world music also. What is it really?

The range of sounds you get at is impressive. The accordion, especially on the new record, is very reminiscent of Astor Piazzolla. you've hit that sweet spot where tango is modern and accessible.

It means a lot that you say that. When Piazzolla and I met in the early 80s, I was not that familiar with what he was doing but I knew his reputation. But when I met him and the guys in his band, they treated me like I was someone special and they knew my music and were big fans. So, the feeling I had about them was really, really good. Then Piazzolla said, �I'm going to send you some music.� He wrote a piece for me that was super complex. I didn't immediately play it, and then a year later I got into it when he had a stroke and ended up in the hospital. This music has changed my life. I'm honored that I got to know him as really good friend and someone who altered my thinking about music in my life. It was a profound change in the way I compose and play.

He had the ability to convey emotions on a wide scale, which fusion never does. Fusion was just exciting and fast and it just hit you over the head. His music was technically harder than the fusion music but at the same time it was crucifying your heart, and that's the shit! It connects to both the head and the heart, and that's still what's lacking in what Chick [Corea] and all those other guys do. With all due respect musically, they haven't gotten in touch with that aspect still. Even when we did the RTF reunion, it was ALL guys again, just older [laughs].

Fusion music misses a lot of chakras.

You hear a lot of dissonance and lines, but are you ever touched by it? No, you're not! As you become more mature you become less interested in this approach.

What's kept your music relevant is that you have evolved over the years. You went from a benchmark for speed & electricity in your youth to being a sophisticated shredder AND serious composer, something that's not often noted in writing about you.

I have never been nominated for a Grammy. I have 28 CDs, most of which really focus on composition and not just playing, and it's only [America] that doesn't give me my due. Foreign countries it happens big time, and that and some other factors is why I do most of my touring outside the States. I'm shown a much higher level of respect. Here, if they aren't being banged over the head or I'm doing some serious, straight ahead jazz, they just won't give my due. I've been bitter about it at times but there's not much I can do about it.

How do you feel your style as a guitarist has changed over the years? The fact that you're equally known as an electric and an acoustic player automatically sets you apart from a lot of your peers.
Di Meola, McLaughlin & De Lucia By F. Antol�n Hernandez Para Nunca Jam�s
It's harder than most people realize to go back and forth, but it's something I committed to way early on. Yeah, I was primarily an electric player, but then RTF started doing our acoustic sets. It was the guitar trio with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia that really put me on the acoustic map. The success of that album, which has sold like five million copies to date, is still far beyond anything recently. It opened this giant door, especially in Europe, where some people were very receptive to whatever acoustic project I had going at the time. Then, I did the smart thing—and again this appealed to Europeans particularly—and allowed the influence of Piazzolla to appear in my music. I will always, always, always play a tune or two of his in my set with my own arrangements and a syncopated Latin thing into the composition. And people love it and I feel very close to it. It's where my heart is.

It's valuable to honor one's touchstones. That's whole idea of standards in jazz.

You have a slew of classical people in particular doing Piazzolla's work exactly as it appears on paper. It's creepy because people love it but you don't hear anything new or original. Piazzolla used to send me handwritten letters saying how much he admired me, and I sent letters back to him and I never write anybody! His encouragement came because he wanted me to do something different and original with his music. So, I have his blessings. It's not like he's rolling over [laughs].

As a composer, wouldn't you want them to come at a piece with something new? What's the point of regurgitation?

In almost any case, if someone were to do a replica of ANYTHING—say a new Sgt. Pepper's—it would be goddamn awful. We did �Strawberry Fields� and of course, it's gonna be different if I do it. It would have much more appeal right off the bat if someone came to me and said they were doing, say, �Mediterranean Sundance� with a full orchestra. I'd go, �Wow! I want to hear that.� If they tried to do it the same, it would be much less interesting.

You've been an influence on a number of young musicians coming up lately, particularly Rodrigo y Gabriela, who openly acknowledge how much they love you.

It's something I'd heard for a while, and about two years ago I had the opportunity to see them in New York. Yamaha Guitars set it up for me to go, and I was completely blown away by how the audience reacted. And it was a young audience, say, between 17-30 and it was 3000-3500 people who went crazy for every little lick. And I thought, �Can you imagine if they got to hear me? [laughs].�

We met later that night and they were really cool and respectful. From that point on, we've remained very much in contact. I can see how they're appealing to a much younger crowd, perhaps primarily through the rock remakes they've done, but it's really caught on. They've hit a wave that's mind-blowing. I still can't understand some of it, but I'm really happy for them because they're two great kids.

Then, they invited me to—just for fun, which is the only way I want to do it—sit in with them. The first time was in Paris, where the crowd seemed to know who I was, which I was a little surprised by. And then we did it last summer at the two Greek Theatres in California and Red Rocks in Colorado. I think their audience could be my audience because there's some real similarities.

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