A bona fide guitar hero, perennial poll-winner and virtuoso of the highest order, Al Di Meola has also been recognized over the past 30 years as a prolific composer and respected artist with over 20 recordings as a leader. His creative output to date is staggering, whether it’s with his current World Sinfonia band or past musical endeavors like his electric Tour de Force group with Jan Hammer, Anthony Jackson, Steve Gadd and Mingo Lewis, the internationally acclaimed Trio with fellow guitar superstars John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia, the Rite of Strings trio with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty or the ‘70s fusion supergroup Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. And while his dazzling technique on both acoustic and electric guitars has afforded him regal status among the hordes of fretboard aficionados who regularly flock to his concerts, the depth of Di Meola’s writing along with the soulfulness and his inherent lyricism of his guitaristic expression have won him legions of fans worldwide beyond the six-string set.
A pioneer of blending world music and jazz, going back to early Latin-tinged fusion outings like 1976’s Land of the Midnight Sun, 1977’s Elegant Gypsy and 1978’s Casino, the guitar great continues to reflect the rich influence of flamenco, tango, Middle Eastern, Brazilian and African music on more recent outings like 1998’s The Infinite Desire, 2000’s The Grand Passion, 2006’s Consequence of Chaos and 2008’s La Melodia, Live in Milano.
Coming off of 2008’s triumphant 25-year reunion tour by Return To Forever, which produced the live two-CD set Returns and the concert DVD Live at Montreux, Di Meola began rehearsing new music with his New World Sinfonia band in preparation for a coast-to-coast tour of the States in the early part of 2009, followed by whirlwind tours of Europe and the Middle East. Di Meola calls his bandmates in the New World Sinfonia - Fausto Beccalossi on accordian, Peo Afonsi on acoustic guitar, Peter Kaszas on percussion, Gumbi Ortiz on percussion, Victor Miranda on bass - “the best group of musicians so far in my career.”
Di Meola’s ongoing fascination with complex rhythmic syncopation combined with provocative lyrical melodies and sophisticated harmony has been at the heart of his music throughout a celebrated career that has earned him critical accolades, three gold albums and more than six million in record sales worldwide. He has been particularly enamored over the past 20 years by the tango music of the late Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, whose compositions he has interpreted over time, beginning with 1990’s Di Meola Plays Piazzolla, continuing to 1993’s Heart of the Immigrants, 2002’s Flesh on Flesh and right up to 2007’s Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar. “Piazzolla had a profound effect on my development as a musician and as a person,” says Al. “We became close friends, often communicating by mail. And during the course of this friendship my admiration and desire to learn more about this great man intensified.”
A native of New Jersey who still resides in the Garden State, Di Meola was born in Jersey City on July 22, 1954. Growing up in Bergenfield with the music of Elvis Presley, The Ventures and The Beatles, he naturally gravitated to guitar as a youngster and by his early teens was already an accomplished player. Attaining such impressive skills at such a young age didn’t come easy for Al but rather was the result of focused dedication and intensive periods of woodshedding between his junior and senior years in high school. “I used to practice the guitar eight to ten hours a day,” he told Down Beat. “And I was trying to find myself, or find the kind of music that suited where I was going with the guitar.”
His earliest role models in jazz included guitarists Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell. But when he discovered Larry Coryell, whom Al would later dub “The Godfather of Fusion,” he was taken with the guitarist’s unprecedented blending of jazz, blues and rock into one seamless vocabulary on the instrument. “I used to ride the bus from New Jersey to see him at little clubs in Greenwich Village,” he recalls. “Wherever he was playing, I’d be there.”
In 1971, he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and by the second semester there began playing in a fusion quartet led by keyboardist Barry Miles. A gig tape of that band was later passed on to Chick Corea by a friend of Al’s and in the early part of 1974 the 19-year-old guitarist was tapped to join the fusion superband as a replacement for guitarist Bill Connors. “I was just sitting around my apartment in Boston on a Friday afternoon when Chick called and asked me to come to a rehearsal in New York,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. But in ten minutes I packed some clothes in a bag, got a ride to New York and never saw that apartment in Boston again.”
Following a weekend of rehearsals with Chick, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, Di Meola made his RTF debut at Carnegie Hall, officially launching his career into the stratosphere.
“Playing with Chick in Return to Forever was the first significant step in my development as a player,” says Al. “Chick is another major influence in my life. He has always been a wonderful supporter, major musical inspiration and a friend.” After three landmark recordings with Return to Forever - 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before, 1975’s Grammy Award-winning No Mystery and 1976’s Romantic Warrior - the group disbanded and Al subsequently started up his career as a solo artist.
His 1976 debut as a leader, Land of the Midnight Sun, was a blazing showcase of his signature chops and Latin-tinged compositions that featured a stellar cast including drummers Steve Gadd and Lenny White, bassist Anthony Jackson and Jaco Pastorius, keyboardists Jan Hammer, Barry Miles and Chick Corea and percussionist Mingo Lewis. Over the course of six more albums with Columbia Records - Elegant Gypsy, Casino, Splendido Hotel, Electric Rendezvous, Tour De Force and Scenario - Al established himself as an influential force in contemporary music.
The triumph of the acoustic guitar Trio with Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin began in 1980. Their debut recording on Columbia Records, Friday Night in San Francisco, became a landmark recording that surpassed the two million mark in sales. The three virtuosos toured together from 1980 through 1983, releasing the studio album Passion, Grace & Fire in 1982. In 1995, they reunited for a third recording, Guitar Trio, follow by another triumphant world tour. In early 1996, Di Meola formed a new trio with the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and RTF bandmate Stanley Clarke called The Rite of Strings. He subsequently recorded with the likes of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, pop stars Paul Simon and Dave Matthews, classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco and Japanese jazz pianist Yutaka Kobayashi. Over the course of his career, Di Meola has also worked and recorded with Phil Collins, Carlos Santana, Steve Winwood, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Milton Naciemento, Egberto Gismonti, Stevie Wonder, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai, Frank Zappa and many more.
But for now Al’s main focus remains his New World Sinfonia. “I’m just totally involved with the new group,” he says. “Everybody’s happy and totally into the music. The RTF reunion tour was fun and it was great for the fans, but it was more of a nostalgic thing. I’m more interested now in moving forward with the New World Sinfonia, which has really developed into something beautiful. For me, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in a long, long time, all the way around. You don’t have the overbearing volume with this band. Instead you have a rich harmonic kind of music with lots of improvisation, you have a music that is emotional, which really reaches far beyond the almost head-banging male crowd that electric fusion attracts.”
The prolific Di Meola plans to document his latest batch of new compositions with both live and studio recordings in the coming year with the New World Sinfonia. “What I’m doing now is just completely satisfying, like a phenomenal meal and a great glass of vintage wine. The fusion thing is kind of a blast from the past and is kind of assaulting on the ears. And there’s a cool aspect to that, but it’s not where I’m going musically as a composer.”
Meanwhile, Di Meola may be expanding his world music vocabulary even further after touring Morocco with his New World Sinfonia. “We’ll be there a whole week and that will afford me the chance to jam with some of the local musicians there. I’m wide open to that kind of collaboration now. I’ve done some jamming back in New York at a world music club in the East Village called Drom. I have a very successful jam there with a Turkish clarinet virtuoso named Husnu Senlendiric. I find that I have a real affinity for the music of the Middle East. So we’ll see how it goes in Morocco. Maybe there’s something that can come out of this.”
On Di Meola’s latest outing, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody (2011), the guitar virtuoso and world music pioneer deals in more evocative and compelling sounds with his World Sinfonia ensemble, delivering hauntingly beautiful and deeply moving music from track to track. The collection kicks off with the entrancing, suite-like “Siberiana”, which opens with some tender call-and-response between Beccalossi’s accordion and Di Meola’s nylon string acoustic guitar before building to a turbulent section with searing electric guitar lines on top. On the affecting “Paramour’s Lullaby”, Di Meola takes a more deliberate approach on electric guitar, spinning warm, lyrical lines over the beautiful harmonies before engaging in spirited call-and-response with Beccalossi near the end of the piece. The rhythmically charged “Mawazine” (featuring percussionist Mino Cinelu) is broken up into two parts on the album and showcases some typically tasty electric guitar work by the leader.
The lushly cinematic “Michelangelo’s 7th Child” (featuring Hungary’s Sturcz String Quartet) has Di Meola utilizing subtle MIDI textures and colorations on his acoustic guitar while also showcasing some virtuosic runs. “Gumbiero” is a stirring Latin number underscored by Ortiz’s churning conga work. Sparks fly between Di Meola’s signature fretboard bravado on both acoustic and electric, Beccalossi’s facile accordion playing and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dazzling piano work on this spirited offering. “Full Frontal Contrapuntal” features some chops-busting unisons and intricate exchanges between Al’s MIDI-tinged acoustic guitar and Beccalossi’s accordion. The surging “This Way Before” and the evocative, flamenco inspired “Fireflies” both feature Di Meola alternating between acoustic and distortion-laced electric guitar licks. The stirring Latin flavored “Destination Gonzalo” and “Radical Rhapsody” both feature virtuosic contributions from pianist Rubalcaba and former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine. The poignant “Bona” is a tender offering with the Sturcz String Quartet that features some of Di Meola’s most lyrical playing on the record. The leader also turns in soothing interpretations of two classic pop tunes, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, both of which feature the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden.
Clearly, there are many chapters yet to come in the story of Al Di Meola. But so far, in his 35 years as a professional musician, he’s already established a rich legacy that has secured a place for him in the Gallery of Guitar Greats.