Di Meola, Al
Al Di Meola
If you don’t advance creatively,” Al Di Meola once I told Guitar Player’s Jim Ferguson, “then all you have left is playing Vegas.” From his stunning arrival on the scene as the fiery virtuoso in Chick Corea’s jazz fusion group Return to Forever to his international acclaim as the member of an acoustic guitar trio, to his championing of the musical legacy of tango master Astor Piazzolla, guitarist Di Meola has held firm to this credo. Passionate, opinionated, and immensely gifted, he has covered more musical terrain in his 20-year career than many artists have in a lifetime.
Di Meola’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has achieved them on both electric and acoustic instruments. Outwardly the electric guitar might seem similar to its acoustic counterpart, but as Di Meola explained to Herb Nolan of Down Beat, “There are certain things you can do on electric guitar you can’t do on acoustic. You can bend strings differently on electric than on acoustic so your ideas will flow differently.” Yet, though he enjoys the versatility of the electric guitar, Di Meóla admitted to Down Beat’s Josef Woodard that “the acoustic guitar is more demanding. It separates the men from the boys.” Talented performers on the two instruments have emerged from time to time, but few other artists have shown such a mastery of both or have been able to use them in such a wide variety of musical contexts.
As a youngster in the New Jersey town of Bergenfield, some 20 minutes away from New York City, Di Meola’s first musical experience was on drums. However, when he was eight he began taking lessons from a local guitarist named Robert Aslanian who introduced him to a wide variety of music. As Di Meóla related to Bill Milkowski of Down Beat, “The Ventures and Elvis were big at the time, and the Beatles were just coming in, so naturally I wanted to be a rock & roll guitar player. And Bob would teach me that stuff, but he also made sure that I learned jazz and bossa nova and even a little classical as well.” Di Meola’s exposure to many different musical repertories would continue to inform his development as a guitar soloist.
In the early 1970s Di Meola studied instrumental performance at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and performed with keyboardist Barry Miles. It was a call from keyboardist Chick Corea in 1974, though, that truly set his career in motion. Corea, who a year earlier had founded a second version of his influential fusion group Return to Forever, heard tapes of Di Meola performing with Miles’s group and found him a worthy replacement for Bill Connors, who had recently left the band. After only a few days of rehearsal, Di Meóla made his Carnegie Hall debut with Corea’s group, and the following night Return to Forever played for a crowd of 40,000 in Atlanta.
Played drums until age eight, when he began taking private guitar lessons; played in keyboardist Barry Miles’s Quartet, 1973–74; member of Chick Corea’s group, Return to Forever, 1974–76; launched solo career; began touring and recording with Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin, 1980; founded Al Di Meóla Project, 1985; toured with Larry Coryell and Berelli Lagrene as Super Guitar Trio, 1987; maintained dual career as electric guitarist and acoustic guitarist, 1991—; formed group World Sinfonia, featuring bandoneón player Dino Saluzzi, percussionist Arto Tuncboyaci, and guitarist Christopher Carrington, 1991.
Awards: Grammy Award, with group Return to Forever, for No Mystery, 1975; Thomas A. Edison Award (Holland), with guitarists John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia, for Friday Night in San Francisco, 1981; Award for Outstanding Merit, City of Atlanta, 1982; inducted into Guitar Player magazine’s Gallery of Greats, 1982; Best Jazz Guitar LP for Kiss My Axe, Guitar Player, 1992.
Addresses: Management —Don’t Worry, Inc., 111 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Record company— Mesa Records, 209 East Alameda Ave., #101, Burbank, CA 91502.
Over the next two years, Return to Forever continued to tour successfully and released three albums. When the group suddenly dissolved in 1976, Di Meóla, who had just released his first solo album, Land of the Midnight Sun, was momentarily disoriented by the group’s dis-bandment but decided to use the opportunity to pursue a solo career. Elegant Gypsy followed in 1977, and the album became Di Meola’s first major commercial success, ultimately selling nearly a million copies.
With Di Meola’s developing popularity as a soloist came a certain amount of negative press. Though most writers agreed that Di Meóla was a phenomenal technician on his instrument, a few felt that his pyrotechnics masked a lack of emotional content. The controversy reached a head when Di Meóla first teamed with acoustic virtuosos John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia for a world tour and a live album, recorded in 1981. Though the album, Saturday Night in San Francisco, was hugely successful and won several awards, Stereo Review critic Joel Vance commented that the trio was so intent on displaying their virtuosity that “not one moment of real emotion is allowed; with all the dazzling zip, the result is sterility.”
During his first decade in the music business, Di Meóla was quick to defend his dazzling guitar technique. As he pointed out, virtuosity and precision provide the basis of Spanish flamenco music, a long and rich tradition that the guitarist frequently mined in his own improvisations. “In Spain people don’t even think something like ‘he’s just trying to show off,’” Di Meóla commented to Herb Nolan in 1978. “That’s the style and you can’t criticize it. It’s what propels the feeling and makes it happen.”
After his second recording with Lucia and Mclaughlin in 1983, however, Di Meóla seemed to reevaluate his approach to his instrument. The following year, exhausted by nearly nonstop touring and recording, he took a hiatus from the music business to gain some perspective on his career. He emerged in 1985 with the music for two new albums, Cielo e Terra and Soaring Through A Dream, both of which showed a new maturity and subtlety of approach. Zan Stewart of Down Beat noted that Di Meola’s solo improvisations on the two projects were “essays in economy and relaxation” rather than “here’s-everything-l-can-think-of-right-now demonstrations,” and the guitarist himself admitted that his musical ideas had fundamentally changed. “I’m doing a different kind of music now, and playing fast all of the time is completely out of place,” he told Jim Ferguson. “Just because you have phenomenal technique doesn’t mean you have to prove it on every song.”
Di Meóla began another important new phase of his career in 1991, when he founded the acoustic ensemble World Sinfonia. The guitarist’s inspiration for the group could be traced back to a meeting in 1985 with Astor Piazzolla, the father of the modern tango. Piazzolla, Argentinian by birth, had brought a fascination with jazz and a solid grounding in classical composition to bear on the music of his native country, performing for many years with the influential group Quinteto Nuevo Tango. Di Meóla was immediately drawn to this music, impressed by, as he described to Charlie Hunt of the Detroit Free Press, “the depth of passion and romance and the intricacies and harmonies and rhythm.”
World Sinfonia included Dino Saluzzi on Piazzolla’s own instrument, the bandoneón—a type of accordion—and sought to capture the intense emotion of Piazzolla’s music in a fresh new setting. During the early 1990s the group toured extensively and recorded two critically acclaimed albums, the first featuring what Down Beat’s Jon Andrews called Di Meola’s “strongest acoustic work and most imaginative arrangements to date.” World Sinfonia proved another intriguing chapter in a rich and varied career, and it seemed likely the future would find Al Di Meóla following other musical paths with similar passion and vigor.
Land of the Midnight Sun, Columbia, 1976.
Elegant Gypsy, Columbia, 1977.
Casino, Columbia, 1978.
Electric Rendezvous, Columbia, 1981.
Splendido Hotel, Columbia, 1982.
Tour de Force “Live,” Columbia, 1982.
Scenario, Columbia, 1983.
Cielo e Terra, EMI, 1985.
Soaring Through a Dream, EMI, 1985.
Tirami Su, EMI, 1987.
Kiss My Axe, Tomato, 1991.
World Sinfonia, Tomato, 1991.
The Best of AI Di Meola: The Manhattan Years, Manhattan, 1992. Heart of the Immigrants, 1993.
With John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia
Friday Night in San Francisco, Columbia, 1981.
Passion, Grace and Fire, Columbia, 1983.
With Return to Forever
Where Have I Known You Before, Polydor, 1974.
No Mystery, Polydor, 1975.
Romantic Warrior, Columbia, 1976.
Detroit Free Press, January 1, 1991.
Down Beat, February 23, 1978; September 1983; February 1986; November 1991; January 1992.
Guitar Player, February 1986; February 1992; December 1993.
Musician, July 1992. Stereo Review, September 1981.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Don’t Worry, Inc., 1994.
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