Kronomyth 4.0: MY SPANISH GUITART. Despite their personal differences over the years, Al Di Meola and Chick Corea have always been kindred spirits musically speaking. Splendido Hotel reunites the pair in what could be seen as a remake of My Spanish Heart in the guitarist’s own image. Both are double-album displays of a singular genius from multiple angles: jazz/rock fusion, Latin, classical, funk, romantic. Now, truth be told, not all of these facets were native to Di Meola, and it seems that some were fastened on to expand the Hotel. The classical “Isfahan,” for example, has its source in the languid jazz/classical landscapes of Corea, not Di Meola. And the ready-made funk song, “I Can Tell,” while well done (Di Meola’s voice is surprisingly restrained and effective), has more in common with Stanley C than Al Di. The rest of Splendido Hotel offers excellent views of Dimeoladom: the sonic steeplechases (“Alien Chase on Arabian Desert,” “Dinner Music of the Gods”), the various tangos (“Splendido Sundance,” “Two to Tango”) and tango fusions (“Al Di’s Dream Theme”), the romantic warrior poems (“Silent Story In Her Eyes”). Had Di Meola simply stopped there, Splendido Hotel would have been a logical (and excellent) continuation of his first three albums. Instead, he adds about an album’s worth of material that exposes a heretofore unseen side of the artist: smooth jazz (provided by a young Philippe Saisse on his first recording), funk, classical and pop (a duet with Les Paul on the Al Martino hit, “Spanish Eyes”), and even a closing lullaby (“Bianca’s Midnight Lullaby”). As I said earlier, it’s a bit of a case of artificial siding, but Di Meola doesn’t disappoint in any of those settings (although “Isfahan” is admittedly arid). I’d stop short of calling Splendido Hotel his masterpiece, because Al Di Meola albums don’t shake out like that; consistency is one of his hallmarks. Rather, this is a masterful collection of many pieces, some of which fit perfectly with previous impressions, and others that are slightly foreign but nearly as flattering.
Kronomyth 23.0: LATINNITUS. This disc contains Di Meola playing mostly acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars (Conde Hermanos, Godin, Ovation) in spirited arrangements that are typically inventive but mellower than you might remember. As Di Meola struggled with tinnitus, he gravitated toward softer sounds and fewer drums (Di Meola himself handles most of the drums on this session). His interest in Latin music led him in a different direction, to Miami, where he recorded this album and found the inspiration for songs like “Flesh On Flesh,” “Zona Desperata” and “Innamorata.” The lineup this time is a mix of old and new, sticking around and just passing through: Anthony Jackson (returning after a 10-year absence!), Gumbi Ortiz, Mario Parmisano, Alejandro Santos, Ernie Adams. Also featured on two tracks is Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who matches Di Meola note for note on the Fender Rhodes and provides two of the album’s most daunting and delightful moments. Although the Cuban influence is keenly felt, Di Meola takes a global view of Latin music these days: there’s a track from Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, another tango from Argentina’s Piazzolla and a familiar fusion classic from fellow Italian-American Chick Corea to round things out. The prominence of flutes and use of synthesizers does give the music a pronounced new age feel some of the time; the reference point for me is Pat Metheny more often than not, although there is one track on here that reminds me a lot of Klaus Schulze (which sounds crazy, until you recall that Di Meola and Schulze actually played together on Stomu Yamashta’s Go). Flesh On Flesh is a fine mix of atmospheric acoustic-electric fusion with lots of neat Latin melodies along the way. That said, this version of “Señor Mouse” may be the cheesiest of the lot.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE LAND ACCORDING TO GuitARP. It’s 1:30 in the land of the midnight sun, and while Pontificus Maximus is off making musicmagic in some dim dungeon, Al Di Meola continues to cut through the competition with his black axe. Elegant Gypsy follows the same design as his first record and features many of the same players: Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, Mingo Lewis, Barry Miles, Lenny White. The new wrinkle here is the participation of Jan Hammer and the first recorded meeting of Di Meola and flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia on “Mediterranean Sundance.” Di Meola’s second disc is also notable for the introduction of spacier sounds: synthesizers, mini-moogs and guitar effects (Anthony Jackson’s bass, for example, seems to be run through some kind of flanger). If the effect of Elegant Gypsy is slightly less impressive than Land of The Midnight Sun (and, in my opinion, it is), it’s best to remember that Di Meola’s first record was very impressive. This time around, the arrangements are a little less breathtaking, and actually seem to drag in a few spots: Jan Hammer’s tuneless mini-moog solo on the opening track is one instance, the first half of “Midnight Tango” is another. There’s still plenty to recommend this to romantic warriors, however: “Elegant Gypsy Suite,” “Race With Devil On Spanish Highway” and the second half of “Midnight Tango.” On Elegant Gypsy, the acoustic guitar may actually get the upper hand. There’s no denying that the duet between De Lucia and Di Meola is a heavenly alignment of stars, and even the brief “Lady of Rome, Sister of Brazil” stands out as perhaps the album’s best mix of melody and technique. Basically, this is Land of The Midnight Sun with less Santana worship, more synthesizers and a teaser of the guitar trio to come.
Kronomyth 3.0: THREE OF A KIND. Di Meola stuck with the same cards (Gadd, Jackson, Lewis, Miles), switched Gibsons (from black to white) and upped the ante on the delightful Casino. Things get off to a rousing start with “Egyptian Danza,” which mixes Latin and Middle Eastern sounds and showcases the stunning staccato pickwork of Al Di Meola. The by-now-obligatory Mingo Lewis composition, “Chasin’ The Voodoo,” keeps the progressive-fusion vibe at maximum velocity/intensity and features Di Meola, Miles (on mini-moog) and Mingo trading short solos in tandem. “Dark Eye Tango” initially promises a smoother, more romantic pacing, but soon becomes more agitated and accelerated, turning into another of Di Meola’s unique fusion tango pieces. Side two starts with one of Chick Corea’s oft-revisited works, “Señor Mouse,” which here gets an interesting reading from Al and Miles that sounds by turns subdued and subversive. The four-part “Fantasia Suite For Two Guitars” feels like four separate acoustic pieces fused together, although individual moments are exciting. The album closes with the title track, electric tango music that again features the articulated and accelerated Gibson blanc. Although each of Di Meola’s first three records are very good, Casino has always been slightly superior in my mind. Maybe it’s the stable lineup, the choice of the mini-moog over the ARP synthesizer or the ambitious arrangements. If fusion and fiery fretwork get your juices flowing, Casino is a sure bet to please.
Di Meola joined Chick Corea’s jazz fusion outfit, Return To Forever, at the age of 19 and soon established himself as an electric guitarist with few peers. Although sounding tentative on his first album with the band, Where Have I Known You Before (1974), Di Meola emerged as a key contributor on No Mystery (1975) and Romantic Warrior (1976). He wasted little time in launching his own solo career, releasing Land of The Midnight Sun (1976) on Columbia Records. That album continued in the progressive rock/fusion style of RTF while introducing Di Meola’s interest in Latin and classicial music. Elegant Gypsy (1977) and Casino (1978) followed, featuring the same core group of Mingo Lewis on percussion, Steve Gadd on drums, Barry Miles on keyboards and Anthony Jackson on bass guitar. The first three Di Meola albums stand as some of the best guitar jazz/rock fusion records of their day.
In the 1980s, Di Meola began to split his time between electric and acoustic guitar. Joining Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin, Di Meola released two albums of acoustic guitar that indulged a shared passion for Flamenco music: the live Friday Night In San Francisco (1981) and Passion, Grace & Fire (1983). In the mid 80s, Di Meola moved from Columbia to the EMI Manhattan label and began making records that reflected the burgeoning interest in new age/world music. Since then, he has recorded for a variety of labels including Rhino, Tomato and Telarc.
In the 90s, Di Meola began to take his interest in tango music further by frequently performing works written by Ástor Piazzolla. Heart of The Immigants (1993), Di Meola Plays Piazzolla (1996) and Diabolic Inventions And Seduction For Solo Guitar (2007) prominently feature Piazzolla compositions alongside Di Meola’s own interpretations of tango.
Kronomyth 27.5: LAST TANGO IN LEVERKUSEN. This is the Diabolic/Chaos tour live at the Leverkusener-Jazztage in Leverkusen, Germany. Despite being billed as a “Return to Electric Guitar” and the front cover image of Di Meola with a double-neck axe (which was apparently confiscated by German customs), Speak A Volcano is a balancing act between the electric, acoustic and classical aspects of Al Di Meola. The man is an absolute fiend on the guitar; the image that stays with me is fingers flying over a custom-inlaid fretbird. As a performer, Di Meola makes a great guitarist, which is to say that as a guitarist he’s not much of a performer. His chemistry with longtime associates Gumbi Ortiz and Mario Parmisano is clear, but it looked a few degrees colder on stage where Mike Pope was standing and Joel Taylor was imprisoned behind a wall of plexiglas. As for Di Meola, he spoke few words and, during the Piazzolla pieces, proceeded to place a big music stand between himself and the audience as if he were performing a classical guitar thesis for a roomful of professors. In fact, there seemed to be an invisible barrier around Al Di Meola all night. A warmer vibe apparently prevailed at the Tel Aviv show in April 2007 (which now featured Tony Escapa on drums), so perhaps time, temperature or both played a hand. What most impressed me about Speak A Volcano is the controlled pace of the show, which builds toward intimacy rather than intensity. Oftentimes, musicians will mix allegro and andante, old and new all night. Here, Di Meola starts out with hot electric fusion (including my favorite performance of the evening, “One Night Last June”), immediately slows the tempo down (“Azzura,” Piazzolla’s “Mi Longa del Angel”) and pauses for the playful “Hypnose” (featuring Al and Gumbi in an I-dare-you duet) before a reduction down to the essence of Al Di Meola solo. The three Piazzolla pieces function as a miniature classical performance within a fusion concert. Of the three, the “Double Concerto” with Parmisano is the most interesting, but the keyboard (a mix of piano and accordion) is too loud and inverts the natural relationship. The band then reunites for the recent “Tao,” highlighted by outstanding solos from Di Meola and Taylor, and then treats the crowd to the classic “Senor Mouse” (which, amazingly, no one in the audience seems to recognize). Despite the Senor’s cold reception, the band returns for an encore, “Fugata,” which presents Piazzolla in a full band arrangement. There’s nothing on screen to suggest this was an important concert in Dimeoladom, just a big gig in a cold place with a professional band. The disc also includes an interview with Al Di Meola that covers his career and playing style.
Kronomyth 27.0: OH, WHAT A TANGOED RUG WE WEAVE. There’s something about the beginning of an Al Di Meola disc that always takes my breath away. The brainbox knows he’s a brilliant guitarist who’s full of surprises and yet somehow, unexpectedly, miraculously, I’m surprised by his genius and agility anew. That’s how I feel every time I hear the opening “Campero” from his latest, Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar. Di Meola is here taking eight Astor Piazzolla tracks and interpreting them in his own idiom. Apparently. What I know about Astor Piazzolla would fit on the head of a very modest pin. Piazolla is a modern tango composer from Argentina, which I can find on the map, and that’s about it. So if you want a deeper discussion, look for one of those wanky writers who talk about “tone” like it’s a secret code word for something other than “sound.” Tango, seduction and diabolic detours have long been a part of Di Meola’s landscape, so fans shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves at the foot of Mount Piazzolla, gazing in awe. Yet Diabolic Inventions is a different artistic statement than earlier albums, a self-portrait of the artist as both passionate student and patient teacher. Clothed in contrarian rhythms, drunk with energy, Piazzolla’s work reels from seductive to unstable. Fascinating stuff, though my jaded ears begin to fence each subsequent song in as just another tango, the initial wonder at the delicious subversion of it all yielding to mild seduction. That’s not to suggest this is a romantic album; anyone attempting to make love to it is likely to sprain something. It’s more about being seduced by the musical possibilities of the tango, which has long been at the heart of Di Meola’s muse.