One Track Mind: Al Di Meola, "Strawberry Fields" (2011)


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By Nick DeRiso

Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola, the former teen prodigy in Return to Forever, accomplishes an uncommon thing here, making something out of a cover attempt at the Beatles' “Strawberry Fields Forever."

The song has such an interior nature, thanks in no small way to John Lennon's brilliant Lewis Carroll-inspired word-play, but also because of its of-the-moment doob-rock pastiche. Sure, the Beatles had done many of these tricks before—strange chord progressions, the use of non-rock instrumentation (four trumpets, three cellos), a false fade out, tape-speed variations, backwards shit—but never in such close quarters. It's almost a puzzle of a record.

So, to the surprise of no one perhaps, most attempts at updating this wackadoo single from 1967 have ended up as empty mimicry or—worse, really—pedantic praise exercises. So, we tick off the list of largely failed tries by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Ben Harper, from Richie Havens to Todd Rundgren, from Vanilla Fudge to Gwen Stefani. Even the brilliantly quirky XTC couldn't get traction on this perplexing psychedelic curio, though there was a more appropriately paranoid feel to the stripped-down Andy Partridge demo released as part of the the Fuzzy Warbles series.

Fact is, though, more often than not, Lennon has it right—even at this late date. There's still no one, I don't think, in his tree.

Di Meola gets there by playing it straight in the jazz sense, unfurling a solo marked by sharp-edged rhythmic syncopations, fresh-take melodies and hipster-sophisticate harmonies. Yet, he's never showy. Di Meola, and this is notable 40 years into a remarkable career, hasn't traded in his instrument's lasting lyrical joys for something so trite as expert complexity. Instead, he's intelligently deconstructing the tune, tearing it down to its emotional foundation, reimaging Lennon's dirgy mellotron-driven lines as sweetly swinging asides. There are, maybe for the first time, these angular sun shards bursting through.

Di Meola hasn't solved the puzzle, so much as shined a new light on its melodic underpinnings.

“Strawberry Fields" is included on Di Meola's new project, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody. Charlie Haden is at the acoustic bass, in one of his two appearances on this recommended Telarc Records release. Cuban-born Grammy-winner Gonzalo Rubalcaba is on piano, with Mino Cinelu (Miles Davis, Weather Report) on percussion.

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