From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Rotondi
After nearly 50 years exploring the most remote destinations on the musical map, Al Di Meola’s homecoming to formative influences The Beatles was always going to involve new languages and fresh perspectives. The travelogue that preceded it, after all, carried the New Jersey native across a universe of sound and syncopation—from pioneering jazz fusion greats Return to Forever to the Latin-inspired solo works Splendido Hotel, Casino, and Elegant Gypsy; from the North African–informed Morocco Fantasia to the sultry embrace of Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla on 2005’s nylon-string tour de force, Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar. More recently, Di Meola has explored fresh compositional ports of call on albums such as 2018’s Opus.
For many fans, the most storied crossing of this journey remains Di Meola’s integral role as the virtuosic bridge between jazz, flamenco, and Eastern music in perhaps the mightiest acoustic trio ever to brandish steel: Di Meola and his equally storied compatriots John McLaughlin and the late, great Paco de Lucía, on the legendary double album Friday Night in San Francisco. (Di Meola is suitably thrilled with an upcoming release of a new collection of previously unreleased live material from that historic run of concerts. See sidebar.)
If Di Meola has shown a lifetime bent for a certain musical wanderlust, his latest album, the largely acoustic Beatles homage Across the Universe, The Beatles Vol. 2—a thematic follow-up to 2013’s Fab Four tribute, All Your Life (A Tribute to The Beatles)—is the logical journey home. After all, that band, along with the Ventures and Elvis, first dropped the guitar bug into Albert Laurence Di Meola’s gifted hands in the early 1960s, in the suburban enclave of Bergenfield, New Jersey.
After so many years in exotic compositional locales, though, Di Meola was never going to return home the same player who left. Across the Universe, appropriately, observes The Beatles’ timeless harmonies and interlocking melodic figures through the syncopated prism of tango, flamenco, bossa nova, and merengue, as Di Meola delivers precision alternate picking on two signature models—a Conde Hermanos nylon-string and an Ovation steel-string—as well as a 1948 Martin D-18. A Roland GR-1 guitar synth adds color and texture. Di Meola even resurrected his fabled black 1971 Gibson Les Paul Custom, running it through his old mid-’70s 50-watt Marshall amplifier, for echoes of his halcyon fusion days.
Regardless of what’s in his hands, Di Meola’s complex polyrhythms, deep harmonic minor and Phrygian-tinted ideas, and badass syncopated rhythms meets The Beatles’ storied catalogue right where Di Meola wants it to—which is, nowhere, man. “I’m not a pigeonholed player in any particular idiom,” says the 66-year-old guitarist. “Sometimes people will try to be complimentary about what I do, saying, ‘Oh, I love it when you play flamenco.’ But I don’t play flamenco. Has it influenced me? Of course—I’ve absorbed many aspects of many traditions. Back in Return to Forever, [bassist] Stanley Clarke used to say, ‘With most guitar players, you can hear exactly who their influences are, but you can’t do that with Al.’ I’d like to think that’s still true.”
All Your Life is a gorgeous album, in which you played mostly double-tracked acoustic guitar versions of Beatles classics like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Penny Lane,” and others. What is about The Beatles’ music that drew you back for another approach, this time with more production touches?
The Beatles’ music is really embedded in my veins. In rediscovering it over the past ten years, it always takes me back to a wonderful time in life. But instead of it being pure nostalgia, you go back and listen to the original tracks and they’re still fantastic. The early Beatles stuff had a beautiful blend of voices, and the pop tunes are brilliant structurally and melodically. And when they stopped touring, it only got even more interesting, with George Martin’s amazing production.
Also, I’m at a place now with my playing and my writing where I can do creative things with the melodies and chords in the songs, but still retain the aesthetic of what was there. On All Your Life, which I actually recorded at Abbey Road Studio Two, I took quite a few liberties with the arrangements, and had more of an avant-garde approach to it. But with this record, I did keep the melodies closer to what people remember, rather than get esoterically jazzed-out to where you can’t even recognize the songs. Plenty of jazz guys have done that, and I cannot stand it because you can’t even find the song in there.
So, I suppose this Beatles record is my way of reintroducing the importance of melodies and heads into the jazz idiom. A lot of jazz and fusion players over the years got more into making their improvisations hipper and longer, and got further away from melodies and heads that were aesthetically beautiful in their most simplistic form—when you hear a great melody, you always get a great feeling. You don’t get as much of that feeling from modern jazz, because it’s gotten more and more away from the masses; you could say it’s more heady and less head. More soloing, less heart. A lot of young players live for the solo, and believe me, I get it. But for me, this was about going back to what it was that we all loved about music in the beginning.
All Your Life was recorded at Abbey Road, of which you’ve said, “It felt like I was in Disney World, in total childlike awe the whole time.” It was also a fairly spare recording, almost entirely just one or two tracks of acoustic guitar. This one is a more ambitious production, which I understand you recorded at your own studio in New Jersey.
Exactly. With Across the Universe, I played most of the instruments myself, except for the tabla on “Norwegian Wood” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” some horn by Randy Brecker on “Till There Was You,” and keys by my great co-producer, Hernan Romero. I recorded at my own studio, so I had choices galore to fulfill the dream of how it would sound. At times, I wanted to do a literal Ringo fill on drums, or add brass and strings and beef up the production, and I could do all of that. I even got a Rickenbacker bass, the same model and string gauge as Paul used. Compositionally, I went on a really wild excursion with “Norwegian Wood,” adding musical variations. The original version is under two minutes, and the whole world knows that melody and that bridge. Now, you don’t sit there when you listen to The Beatles do it and think, “God, it’s too short,” because it’s so beautiful. That said, I wanted to extend that journey and make it more into a tour de force because I don’t have the vocal part and the words to sing.
Now, when forced to change up or lose one of the more important parts, like the direct vocal melody, I feel as though I have to come up with creative things to do with that. Think of “Hey Jude.” When Paul plays piano—whether it’s “Penny Lane” or “Hey Jude” or any other piece—every note is a quarter note on the beat and it never changes. If you eliminate Paul’s vocal, even if you play that melody on guitar, it’s still a simple and classic piano part, but it wouldn’t work for me on solo guitar. It would sound like I’m trying to copy it, and it would be boring. I have to do something different. So I would change the rhythms, mostly by syncopating them. In other cases, some of the songs felt too short as instrumentals, like they needed to go on another journey before they got back to the main theme. So there’s a lot of original written music embedded in my versions. “Strawberry Fields Forever” gets a whole new middle section, and “Your Mother Should Know” has two new sections.
The central rhythm lick to your arrangement of “Dear Prudence” is a great example of applying a clave feel to a Beatles song. The only notes in your picking pattern falling on the beat are the bass notes, while the rest are upbeats, which is an approach we often associate with you. Talk about applying a syncopated feel to these generally eighth- or quarter-note feel songs to fill the rhythmic holes.
I suppose I hear rhythm as syncopated because it’s more interesting and it swings more. My take on these songs doesn’t have to be as square or metrical rhythmically because I don’t have the voice and the lyrics to worry about, so I can take it somewhere different. I suppose it comes from my background loving and absorbing Latin music for so long. I’m also a percussionist; in fact, I think I’m a better percussionist than guitar player! I play in a very Latin way, and I have a strong sense of playing against the time or the clave. By “playing against the time,” I mean that thing where your upper body is playing counter rhythms to your foot which is tapping a quarter note, without the foot going out of sync. This is a major struggle for nearly all guitar players, and they don’t know it unless you sit down with them and tell them how to do it. You’ll actually watch their tapping foot go completely out of whack.
I’ve done clinics where I have everyone do that, and you could spend a whole clinic on that one point. They aren’t even aware that they have that issue, or what I would call a problem. In order to keep the time, they have to slow it all down so they’re focused on keeping time. The hypnosis, the magic, is in how the listener hears the way you’re syncopating against the time, so if the time goes out slightly one way or another, you lose the moment-to-moment thing that the listener is locked into. Sure, a lot of people say, “I play with a drummer, I’m fine,” but really, you should be able to do it on your own.
The thing is, you have to discover if you have this ability to play against the time while you keep time. I think I’m fortunate is all. I spent all of my school years in class not paying attention and tapping on top of my desk, because I wanted to become a percussionist. Eventually, I wanted to be able to play counter-rhythms and syncopations on my guitar. I don’t know exactly why I did it, but it worked, and that’s how I developed whatever my style of playing has come to represent.
You’re a pick player on both nylon-string and steel-string guitar, but you’re also able to play complex independent counterpoint that people generally associate only with fingerstyle players.
That’s probably because I went through a country and bluegrass period in my teens where I became an absolutely huge fan of Doc Watson, Clarence White, and a lot of the Nashville guys. I even wanted to move to Nashville. I dressed as a cowboy! I had a year when I was around 15 where I worked on adopting pedal-steel licks to the electric guitar. Not a lot of people know this, but I really, really loved that kind of playing . . . Doc Watson, man. See, I didn’t know that on those classic recordings Doc was playing with his fingers—using a thumbpick and one fingerpick on his index finger. I just knew it was a pick of some kind, so I tried to re-create it with a flatpick, listening to the records, and I wonder if that helped me further develop the ability to play those individual voices while picking. It could well be.
Still, you’re a player who reads and writes music extremely well, and you’re often playing complex written compositions or arrangements of your own design. But since you’re not playing traditional classical rest-stroke, you don’t have the whole p-i-m-a system to fall back on.
True. But when I see written music, I know instinctively what needs to be an upstroke or a downstroke. And sometimes you need to do two downstrokes or upstrokes in a row. I learned alternate picking from day one from my great jazz guitar teacher, Bob Aslanian. [Check out the classic instructional book A Guide to Chords, Scales & Arpeggios by Di Meola and Aslanian. —Ed.] We would talk a lot about picking technique and do exercises around that. I always emulated players that had very strong articulation, whether it was a piano player like Chick Corea or a sax player like Wayne Shorter. I just appreciate players who really lay into the note as opposed to glossing/blurring or picking one note and hammering-on the rest.
Some people can do the hammer-on and pull-off thing well, but for me it’s not as effective, because you don’t feel all the notes in your chest as a listener. It doesn’t have the same effect for me. A blur isn’t as effective as a machine-gun type of articulation. Keep in mind, piano players can play ghost notes, but they can’t hammer-on—they have to play every note. I’m a big believer in doing everything you can to develop your right-hand picking technique. Of course, I’m not even really conscious of those kinds of concerns now. It’s like a light switch after all these years. If you practice and develop your technique the right way, eventually it just settles into muscle memory, and you don’t have to analyze it anymore. I have to say, getting to that point is pretty joyful.
‘We Were Young Spitfires’
A Blazing Concert Run Reveals Even More High-Velocity Treasures
“See, not many people know that we played two nights in San Francisco at the Warfield—Friday and Saturday,” laughs Al Di Meola, playing me excerpts from unreleased 1980 live tracks from the hallowed trio of Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucía over the phone. “The technique and interplay are on a level that I don’t think I could do now. We had played every night for two months up to that point. We were young spitfires. I got a supercharge from hearing it all. People are going to love it. It’s just exciting to the point where it lifts you off your chair.”
According to Di Meola, the unreleased tracks have waited 40 years to be released, through a combination of label shuffling and uncertainty about the tape quality. Older audio tapes from the mid-1970s to mid-’80s often suffer what is known as “sticky shed syndrome” (or “sticktion”), which occurs when the magnetic tape’s binder deteriorates due to humidity, leaving a sticky residue on the tape heads. The remedy? “I had the tapes baked professionally a couple of times at around 125 degrees for around eight hours,” Di Meola says, “and the quality came out amazing.” The album will be distributed by high-end audiophile label Impex Records, a subsidiary of Sony, which has recently released a 180-gram vinyl edition of Friday Night in San Francisco, mastered in all-analog by mastering guru Bernie Grundman.
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Tracks like the duet “Mediterranean Sundance” and the blazing trio arrangement of ”Fantasia Suite” remain staples of Di Meola’s live sets—“even nowadays, people will wait an entire show for me to play ‘Sundance,’” he confesses—and they set an almost impossibly high bar for every acoustic trio or duet record released ever since, certainly in technical terms. “Well, it’s a wild ride, and the same is true on these unreleased tracks, which, by the way, are not alternate versions of the same songs, but completely different tunes, like my piece ‘Splendido Sundance,’ the [John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra] song ‘Meeting of the Spirits,’ a lovely still unnamed original of Paco’s, a version of the song ‘Orfeo Negro,’ and much more.”
A wild ride, indeed. For those who still listen slack-jawed to the stunning speed and articulation the three masters lay down on Friday Night in San Francisco’s “Fantasia Suite”—remember to listen for Di Meola in the right channel, de Lucía on the left (or McLaughlin left on duets), and McLaughlin in the middle channel—the new tracks offer even more of the same singular scariness. “‘Splendido Sundance’ starts off in one tempo, but we increase the tempo as the improv part goes on and on towards the end, increasing every pass through the progression” Di Meola says. “You would think there’s simply no way it can get faster, but then it ups the tempo again, and then you think, well, now there’s surely no way it can get faster—and it does. It just gets almost inhuman at that point.”
Di Meola can still bring the speed, but he admits that in his maturing years, he’s less likely to burn for the sheer sake of excitement and has turned his attentions more to composition and nuance. “Yeah, it’s less about the lightning and the fireworks, now, but even back then it wasn’t really speed for speed’s sake. We were trying to create excitement, and we did.” —JR