James Ross Kiefer
The electric guitar has been a source of musical ingenuity and wonder since its creation. Players like Eric Clapton, Tosin Abasi and Carlos Santana have become synonymous with the instrument, known for their impressive skills. When Al Di Meola picks up the guitar, with his brilliant musical insight and virtuosic prowess, he transforms what we think the instrument is capable of.
Originally hailing from Bergenfield, New Jersey, Di Meola showed an interest in music at a young age. Hearing the music of The Beatles and Elvis Presley inspired him to start playing guitar, and with such dedication. When talking with “Down Beat” magazine Al mentioned, “I used to practice the guitar eight to ten hours a day… I was trying to find myself, or find the kind of music that suited where I was going with the guitar.”
It was in 1974 when Al was invited to join the jazz-rock(fusion) supergroup Return to Forever. Then a 19 year old undergraduate at Berklee College of Music, Al expressed it was both exciting and nerve racking. “At the time it was my favorite band, it was really a dream come true. Through a friend of mine they heard a tape of my playing, and although there were a lot of great players out there they could have chosen, I got the call.”
His first gig with Return to Forever happened a few days later at Carnegie Hall in New York. “Yeah I was nervous beyond belief, in my eyes they were already legends. It was overwhelming, I was really kind of thrown in deep water, and I either had to sink, or pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
Al continued to tour with Return to Forever until they disbanded in 1976, and played on three studio albums, including the Grammy winning “No Mystery” and fusion landmark “Romantic Warrior.” Since then Al began his solo career which has spanned over four decades and a variety of musical landscapes. His second solo album, “Elegant Gypsy,” celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and has received multiple awards for its ambitious guitar work.
No stranger to the acoustic guitar, Al joined fellow guitar icons John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia in 1980. Recording “Friday Night in San Francisco” which sold over four million copies, the group toured extensively until 1983. He has also collaborated with other music giants, including Stevie Wonder, Lenny White, Paul Simon, Manuel Barrueco and Jimmy Page.
“When you play with players of a high level whatever you have inside you comes out faster,” says Al. “Your conversations have to be intelligent musically, and I come from a percussion world in the way I approach the guitar. My emphasis on providing strength of time, so that I can syncopate against it, is not something very ‘guitaristic’, but it is needed for what I do.”
Al attributes much of his style to the playing of other musicians and instruments. “I actually started on accordion,” laughs Al. “Accordion music was very corny when I was kid, so I didn’t last very long taking lessons. with that, but the sound is a very reminiscing type of sound. It’s a very vocal like and sentiment exhibiting type of instrument.”
He talks about how the great tango composer Astor Piazzolla inspired him on the bandoneon, a cousin to the accordion. “Fusion music was really more about excitement, more cerebral, and about certain elements that really didn’t go close to the heart, whereas his [Piazzolla] music was all the elements of complexity and harmony and difficult passages, but at the same time it had the ability to make you cry.” Al goes on to say, “It was so beefed it hit your heart, and for me that would be the thing I thought was lacking in jazz music. And what I only hope to inspire in music, or obtain elements of, is from that exploration of Piazzolla.”
Another inspiration to Al is former bandmate Chick Corea. “I had tremendous respect for him, every aspect of his playing is phenomenal.” He mentions how important it was to play with with such a well versed musician. “Really the best players have the best articulation, like Steve Gadd on drums and Chick on piano. They were all really inspiring because they were strong players and there were no weaknesses involved. The articulation and phrasing, and the ability to play against the time, provided enough influence and desire to take whatever I was doing to the next level.”
In terms of his own compositions, Al tends to play with natural tendencies of instruments. “Obviously the electric electric guitar has a more singing ability to sustain which is more vocal like, where the acoustic has a shorter duration of sustain, but each has it’s different qualities that are positives. However I think that the sound of the electric guitar automatically puts into a ‘rock’ thing.” Al then says, “I can play the same thing on acoustic guitar, and because of the sound of the acoustic guitar you can call it something different. It’s really the sounds of the instrument that throws it into a category, as opposed to the actual music throwing it into a category.”
Al Di Meola has reached such a pedigree of playing that awards seem to flock to him. He has won Best Jazz Guitarist in Guitar Player Magazine five times, including other awards for his acoustic guitar and studio work. He’s even been honored with the Miles Davis award, an award for musicians who have helped jazz grow as a genre, while maintaining a large audience.
Currently on tour to promote his latest album “Elysium,” Al will be playing the Carolina Theater of Durham on Tuesday, February 7. The evening will include music from ranging from his early work, to his latest releases. It promises to make for an electrifying evening.