An Interview with Legendary Jazz Guitarist, Al Di Meola
by Don Zulaica
Al Di Meola is no stranger to crossing musical boundaries. As a boy, the New Jersey native grew up listening to The Ventures, The Beatles and Elvis Presley. But it was his first guitar teacher, Bob Aslanian, who introduced him to bossa nova, jazz and classical music. In his teenage years he regularly took the bus into Greenwich Village to check out guitarist Larry Coryell, whom Di Meola has since dubbed "The Father of Fusion." Little did he know of the impact he himself would make on the genre.
In 1971 he enrolled at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, where by his second semester he was playing in a fusion quartet led by keyboardist Barry Miles. But it was in early 1974 that he received a phone call from a keyboardist named Chick Corea, and together with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White formed the seminal fusion group Return to Forever. After the Grammy Award winning albums "No Mystery" and "Romantic Warrior," RTF broke up in 1976, launching Di Meola's lengthy solo career.
The electric efforts like "Elegant Gypsy," "Spelndido Hotel," and 1998's "The Infinite Desire" are now joined by a distinctively acoustic record, "The Grande Passion" the third project recorded with his acoustic group, World Sinfonia, and recently released on Telarc Records.
Alternate Music Press contributor Don Zulaica spoke with Di Meola about "Passion," "Desire," and America's musical scene.
Q: When did you put the World Sinfonia together and make "The Grande Passion?"
A: I wrote the music last January and we recorded between February and April, and added the symphony at the end of the recording.
Q: And how do you write for this type of music? Where do tunes such as "Misterio" ["Passion's" first track] and the like come from?
A: Probably from just being inspired by certain classical musics, also some opera music. Andrea Bocelli in particular. Just kind of soaking in that inspiration, that led to the writing of this record. "Misterio" is my favorite piece.
Q: How long had you been writing in this style?
A: I think it was evident on "Infinite Desire," even though that record was generally electric in nature. There were hints of this kind of development going on from at least two or three records ago. Certainly, World Sinfonia, this is the third record of this group in this format.
So it's really a combination of my music and [the late guitarist/composer] Astor Piazzolla's influence. And at the time there was even more influence from the operatic and classical worlds.
Q: What can you tell me about Piazzolla's impact on you?
A: Basically, it's a music that is extremely emotional in every way. It's a music that really hits the heart but at the same time it's intelligent and challenging, to the player and the listener. A little different than a lot of other fusion musics that were mostly challenging, that didn't have the emotional aspect where you have absolute feelings about times, places and people. This is a lot deeper, in my opinion.
Q: Were you composing music back in Return to Forever days?
A: I was composing soon after I joined the group. It was not something I wanted to do. I was really a huge fan of Chick's writing, but it was
Chick that got us all to grow and develop as quick as we did-- which I thank him for. First of all, I didn't even know that I had the ability to do it. But we didn't have a choice, he actually made us write. A pretty big gesture coming from a guy who is one of America's greatest composers.
Q: Did you feel yourself growing over the years, playing and compositionally, from RTF through the solo career...
A: Oh yeah, every record I felt there was some growth going on. It's an ongoing process. Back then it was a far-away dream to do something with a symphony that I actually wrote the music for. So it's come up to this. And it seems that the more interesting the music gets from an aesthetic viewpoint, the less mainstream it becomes. It's unfortunate, but that's just the way it is. If you get more interesting with your music and you develop and you grow, it's almost a double-edged sword, I think.
Q: Is there a difference as to how you approach playing and writing in an acoustic setting as opposed to an electric one?
A: When you listen to "Infinite Desire" and then you listen to "Grande Passion," you can imagine, if I stripped away all of the loops and the sounds that might be deemed electronic or contemporary on "Infinite Desire," what you're left with is music that is very similar to "The Grande Passion." It's just how you treat it. It's the same tree, just different ornaments.
Q: On "Passion," I'm familiar with John Pattitucci through the Chick connection. What can you tell me about some of the other members of the ensemble (i.e., Oscar Feldman, Gilad, Mike Mossman, Hernan Romero, etc.) Where did you find them?
A: They're all musicians that were recommended to me. They're not particularly well-known, but they fit nicely in my touring group. I could have gotten guys with a much bigger name. However, you see them for one day and they're gone forever. This is a group that we've developed the music, we play it on tour-- and I always wish a year after we do a record that we could re-record it, because it just keeps getting better and better.
Q: Did you just come off a tour recently?
A: Yes, we toured in the summer, and just did another six-week tour. It started in Europe and then we came here to the States. And we'll go out again in February for about four months, doing the States, and all over Europe-- we're going to Israel again.
Q: Is the Sinfonia the full-time thing now, or do you still want to make electric albums in the future?
A: I don't think I could make electric albums in the future, like the way I used to make them. I mean, it was so kick-ass, so high-energy, so damaging to the ear drums. But I really don't feel that the audience wants that anymore. That's my general opinion. I think that they've had it. They want music that's going to be intelligent, soothing, emotional-- but they don't want to be bombarded. They want to be seduced. It' s just a sign of maturity.
However, I totally go against the whole industry. And I'm talking about the thoughts of how radio and record companies generally think, and that is I think they way underestimate the listeners and kids out there, who could also enjoy this kind of thing if they got a chance to hear it. I don't say that's true for other kinds of jazz, older forms of jazz. I don't think there is that possibility, unfortunately.
Really, I don't have a tremendous desire to do electric. Although with my acoustic guitar I make MIDIed guitar sounds that sound better than my electric guitar alone.
Q: Are there any guitar players out there now, well-known or not-so-much, who you think are important right now?
A: I like the Spanish guy, Vincente Amigo. He's pretty amazing. I know there's tons, but I can't think of any at the moment. I'm not really following guitar players.
Q: What are you listening to?
A: Gonzalo Rubalcaba is probably the greatest musician on the planet earth. He's a pianist from Cuba, with a lot of records out. But because of our horrendous radio and television in the United States, people just do not know about him. It's just like Astor Piazzolla-- nobody knows who he is in the United States. He's one of the great geniuses of the 20th century.
Q: It certainly seems there's not the burgeoning scene that you came up in, the early '70s.
A: Yeah, that was a fortunate time. We were doing things that were new, and it was a good era in which to showcase it. Now when you get guys that have something new to say, it's a much more difficult era. Because what is popular now is the reverse of virtuosity. If it's sloppy, horrendous, and weird, it becomes more popular with the kids. In the '70s if you had virtuosity, you were put in a really good light. Not anymore.