By Cliff Rhys James
2015 Miles Davis Award Winner; four time (and counting) winner of Guitar Player Magazine’s “Best Jazz Guitarist”; 1981 inductee into the “Gallery of Greats”; member of such legendary ensembles as Return to Forever, Rite of Strings and World Sinfonia; unsurpassed Composer / Performer on ten of the 100 greatest Jazz / Fusion songs ever recorded; one third of the acclaimed Guitar Hero Trio ( along with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia ) who sold over two million copies of their seminal Friday Night in San Francisco concert album. Can you say indefatigable?
Dive deep into the river of Fusion with its tributaries of “Jazz – Rock,” “Latin – Jazz,” “World Music” and other sub genres and you’ll immediately encounter a musician for all seasons; a man whose blazing talent and creative output through the decades are exceeded only by his universal recognition. Guitar Virtuoso; Prolific Composer; Fearless Musical Innovator; Father of Fusion (Okay, he calls Larry Coryell the Father of Fusion but others assign that honorary appellation to him) and Prime Mover behind the integration of music of many genres from many cultures in many places: Al Di Meola is a very busy man which is why I count myself fortunate when he agrees to our phone interview between the American and European legs of his current tour. (An inveterate multi tasker, he packs for the flight to Europe even as we speak on the phone.)
Guitar Connoisseur: Al, I know you just wound up the New England leg of your Elegant Gypsy and More Tour and that you’re now preparing for the European leg entitled Elysium and More Unplugged.
Al Di Meola: Yes, that’s right. It’s been fun so far and I’m really looking forward to Europe.
GC: Here’s my recommendation and I won’t even charge you for this advice. Right after you walk out onto the very first concert stage in Europe and just before you crank things up, I want you to look out over the audience and say into the microphone: “If you find yourself riding alone in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled, for you are in Elysium.” Then launch right into Elysium, the title song of your new album.
ADM: That’s good! I’m writing this down.
——- Laughter ——
GC: That quote was the famous line by Maximus in The Gladiator as he rides back and forth in front of his men just prior to the great battle scene and as soon as I heard about your new album entitled Elysium, my mind raced immediately to that piece of dialogue.
ADM: Yes, I remember the movie and that’s a great line. I like it, but we don’t play Elysium. We do play several numbers from the new Elysium Album but not the title song. It’s another one we should do but haven’t yet rehearsed.
GC: Okay, but what can you tell us about the Album and the tour? And related to that, are you happy with how Elysium turned out and are you generally pleased with where you are musically at this time?
ADM: Well this was all about new compositions that spoke to me when I was going through an emotional period of my life. I was going through a divorce, meeting a new person in my life and what pulled me in was the actual writing which served as a kind of therapy where you struggle through and with whatever you’re feeling. You try to get it down on paper and I found it be highly productive and really helpful in the extreme when it came to my emotional life. I also felt the need to do this anyway because in the period before that I had done renditions of Beatle songs. So I felt this deep need to do a whole work of originals and to take whatever was coming out, put it down and not even think about the mass appeal thing at all but to instead just make an interesting guitar record – that’s really what I wanted to do.
GC: As a writer I can relate to that. The vicissitudes of life have sometimes allowed me to pour stuff out on the page that I later found to be startling.
ADM: It’s like opening the faucet and whatever is coming out, as crazy as it might have been, I just went with it. And so it wasn’t until three quarters of the way in and I was just about ready to record and a friend of mine came over to my house, an ex- guitar tech to show off some effects boards that he’d been raving about and I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time because he came from a different part of Jersey. And anyway he came over with the pedal board and his Les Paul and so I proceeded to play his Les Paul in my house in this giant room I have near the front which is kind of like a studio with triple height ceilings. And I just started to play with all these different effects and I really got turned onto the sound – especially playing some of the new music. I was actually amazed that most of the new music worked so well with the effects and so at that point I decided to open up and do some of it electrically – kind of a left and right channel thing.
GC: Yes, I‘ve listened to the album and really like the way you’ve created what I’d call songs within songs. Not only that but you’ve got both electric and acoustic pieces and I guess I was a bit surprised because I knew from comments you’d made in previous forums that you wanted to move away from electric music. But regardless, the results speak for themselves and I find the combination of acoustic and electric pieces make for a wonderful listening experience.
ADM: Thanks. Yes, I’m very happy with the results.
GC: Before that in Radical Rhapsody you did Strawberry Fields by the Beatles and then you released All Your Life where you covered 14 Beatle songs so this was just you getting back to whatever moved you or came naturally at the time.
ADM: Yes – I had to get back to me and also to bring more of what I was known for in the beginning – to get that sound back to some degree but with current higher levels of writing. I didn’t want to just do some simple riffs you know like Elegant Gypsy was which was far simpler compositionally than I have been writing. I wanted to stay in the realm of complex writing – probably because my emotions were so complex at the time.
GC: Let me roll with that since we’re on the subject. Do you prefer to write in a certain way, at a certain time, or in a certain place?
ADM: I write only in Miami and nowhere else – just Miami. I just chart everything out in this room and it’s very conducive for that type of thing. I really need to be alone and so basically it’s this condo on the beach and it just serves as the perfect place and also I have this great 8 track recorder which helps me put down the ideas.
GC: In leading up to the actual writing itself do you find that you’re more creative if you listen to music, or read, or watch the waves, or all or none of those? In other words what moves you into that place of mind where you’re able to create original music?
ADM: I usually watch TV. That seems to kick-start the creative idea process because I’m focused on something else and while I’m playing the hand sometimes gravitates to places I’ve never been accustomed to going and then as it grabs my attention away from the TV I realize, Ah hah, that was interesting. And that can be the seed to a new piece at which point I go into the other room where I first develop it as much as I can before I then proceed to record it where I take it through the stages. The key part is always the arpeggiated second part; the first part being the melody is something I never start off with because no one can really write the melody at that point. It’s almost an impossibility. You need to have the harmonics, you need to have the arpeggios; you need something that the melody can sit against – if that makes some kind of sense?
GC: Okay, so you start with the arpeggios and then hang the melody on the structure and –
ADM: Very few people can start with the melody, it just seems bizarre that they can suddenly sing something and say – oh, that’s a song. That’s just a way that is so different and not so easy and so for me it’s just better to come up with a real interesting arppegiated, syncopated part which then inspires the melody to emerge.
GC: You know, you mentioned watching TV with the guitar in hand so that your mind is not fully engaged in either activity which then leads in new and interesting directions. Here’s something I’ve done that’s perhaps similar: I’ve gotten in the shower with music playing in another room set at a volume where I can hear only parts, not all of the songs clearly. So, I’ve got the ambient noise of the shower all around me and I’m occasionally picking up familiar passages of songs that I’ve known but now because I’m only hearing selected portions and now because only the back beat of the bass vs. the lead guitar is coming through or perhaps the lead riffs but not the keyboards, the listening experience is totally different. It’s a technique and not pure invention, but it can yield creative results.
ADM: Yeah – I suppose that’s a variation on what I do. Whatever works.
GC: You’ve talked a lot through the years about how you were profoundly influenced by Astor Piazzolla. I find that interesting because there was such a difference in culture, age and generation and yet you felt this very strong affinity for the man and his music. Could you please elaborate a bit on this? In other words, what do you think pulled you in that direction so much?
ADM: Well, it was becoming more and more obvious to me that fusion music wasn’t really doing much to move the heart. It didn’t really center in the heart. It was stimulating in terms of its complexity which it more of a cerebral effect and then I came upon Piazzolla’s music which still had the technical difficulties when you played it and was highly intelligent but at the same time there were so many moments in the music that would just break your heart. I thought, this is exactly what instrumental music should be. So I started to strive for that musical inspiration not only in my playing but also in my writing as much as I could. I wanted to evoke that kind of emotion. It could be very melancholic but still, I mean if music can make you cry, it seems to me that’s the highest compliment in the world. And that wasn’t happening in fusion music at the time. Everyone was trying to be more hip by being more dissonant with all this highly technical coldness – Chic Correa included. And so even as I was touring with Chick Correa’s band and with other bands and even doing my own thing I found that I would never be moved – never! Nothing was moving me.
What do you call a guitar style that incorporates an incendiary combination of sweep picking, finger tapping, legato playing, whammy bar abusing, speed riffing and chord thrashing? That’s right, it’s known as shredding. I told you that to tell you this: According to an authoritative article entitled “Blast in Hyperspace with the Otherworldly Power of Shred,” the three principal pioneers of shred are: Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame (you’re nodding your head), Eddie Van Halen (you’re nodding your head), and Al Di Meola, (perhaps you stopped nodding your head but I wrote that right and yes you read it right.) Shredding it seems does not belong alone in the land of the rockers for Al Di Meola is one of the three Sultans of Shred! But Al Di Meolo is of course much more than a shredder. In fact he presently prefers the rich and warm sound of acoustic Latin influenced sounds.
GC: Wow, nothing was moving you! That was a profound and sobering watershed moment wasn’t it?
ADM: Yeah, because I had already discovered Piazzolla and in playing that music and also seeing him in concert and then knowing him; the music was so much deeper emotionally and that’s really where I wanted to go because fusion wasn’t doing it and jazz surely wasn’t doing it. It was all very cerebral but it wasn’t enough.
GC: And so you found Piazzolla’s music to be technically complex and involved like fusion and jazz, but at the same time it was more highly charged or deeply rooted in emotion and —-
ADM: Yes, there were sections of his music that I found absolutely heart wrenching. They were so beautiful and it was more reminiscent of what classical music does because it was his brand of Tango – Classical. And there are elements of that, of classical, in fusion and I wanted that to become more of an influence in my writing. And it got to the point where I not only wanted that feel in my own writing but when performing I started to put one or two Piazzolla pieces in my set because it felt so good.
GC: Correct me if I’m wrong but he alienated purists because he came out of that Tango background.
ADM: Oh, yeah, you mean the Tango purists and yes, because he took it from Brothels to clubs and performances and he was adding in elements that were not part of the original Tango, elements like classical. He wanted to leave some of Tango’s more limiting influences behind because of its close association with where it came from and what it represented and how the structure was so small and confined and he wanted to become a serious classical composer. And so he went to Paris to study with a famous classical teacher who said to him, “You represent Tango, your soul is Tango; don’t ever give up your soul.” And he would have never achieved what he did if he had not heard those words from that respected teacher.
GC: Isn’t it also true that when you two finally encountered each other, he said that your music had profoundly influenced him?
ADM: Well, he was really into the whole fusion thing and he had come to some of my shows. But you know Piazzolla is more like modern Bach. I’m not modern Bach. He was looking to expand even further from where he was at the time and had found some excitement and interest in fusion. That was actually something I learned much later and it surprised me.
GC: Did you find that same emotional content and pull when you played with Paco de Lucia given his Flamenco background?
ADM: Yes, although with Paco it wasn’t so much the writing as it was the precision of his playing and the soulful precision was beyond anything I had heard at that point. I went, oh my God, this is really different and on another level and I’ve got to get involved with this and I’ve got to do something with him. This is when I was about 22 years old. I remember I had first heard of him when I was around 19 and had already started to play with Return to Forever and so I went to this music store and bought a couple of his records. And when I listened to them I was just blown away with his technique. And of all the guys, I just knew that I could do something with him and so I had my record company contact his record company. It was a magic time in the record industry in the 70s – it was just fantastic. You know they made things happen, they built artists, they invested in talent and we had real budgets to work with. And so he came over and we just melded and it became huge.
GC: How did that turn into you, Paco and John McLaughlin and the amazing success of Friday Night in San Francisco?
ADM: Paco and I first recorded in 76 and it was released in 77. Elegant Gypsy turned into such a big hit and when I went to visit him after that in Europe, I found that it was all over the radio everywhere we went in Spain and also in Germany. And so I approached him about doing another piece, Casino, which never made it because of a screw up by the recording engineer. We also talked about touring which we thought would be huge. But after a while he went back to his thing and I went back to mine and so it receded from our minds. And so it wasn’t until 1980 that we were approached by Barry Marshall. He’s an entrepreneur / promoter who was just starting up at the time who wanted to do a guitar trio and so he approached me, Paco and Leo Kottke about going out together. And I said, “Wow” that ought to be great because I was a big Leo fan and I thought man that would really be cool. But then he calls back about two weeks later and says, “What about McLaughlin instead of Kottke? How would you feel about that?” And I said, well then, you’ve got a real monster on your hands. That will be huge. And he said, “Well okay, good, as long as you feel that way I’m going to put it together.” And he did. He put it together.
GC: I was also a big Kottke 12 string guitar fan. For Friday Night in San Francisco, you Paco and John played individually, you all three played together and then in between you formed duos and so you played with one and then the other. You don’t have to answer this question, but I’ll ask it anyway – from the duo standpoint, who did you prefer playing with – Paco or John?
ADM: Paco for sure because Paco and I had a great rhythm sensibility together. We both understood the upbeat feel, the syncopation feel of Latin and that’s not something that everyone has. You really have to be born with it. You either have it or you don’t have it. But playing Rhythm with John was tough because he was rush, rush, rush and not relaxed at all. However, on the other hand, what he added was his own thing which is wonderful and amazing and rounded things out. But Paco, who came from Flamenco and I worked much better together because we both have Latin backgrounds or at least Latin sensibilities. So when Paco and I played together there was this magical feeling.
GC: You know I once heard Paco quoted after all that and he said something to the effect of, “A lot of people thought that because we were veering off into Latin directions that I was the teacher while Al and John were the students following me but in truth, I was doing everything I could do just to keep up with those guys.”
ADM: Yeah, he didn’t know scales, he didn’t even know what a G chord was. Everything was done purely by ear. Now I’m a combination of street experience and formal music education and so I would come in with charts which Paco really couldn’t relate to at all. In fact in our last re-union tour we only played one song all the way through from the record because he couldn’t read the music and since John was pretty much agreeable to anything that Paco wanted to do we ended up playing songs that were short in formal structure but long on improvisation.
GC: You’ve always had this devotion to or fascination with complex rhythms, syncopation and sophisticated harmonies and you’ve talked about being able to tap your foot and play off the rhythm. You’ve also spoken about spaces and gaps and how a musician cannot be afraid of those. Do you find that even some world class celebrity guitarists don’t have this innate ability you’re talking about?
ADM: Most don’t have it. The foot will go off first. Their foot is tapping time and it will be fine for a moment but the minute the syncopated rhythm is introduced and they attempt to play it the foot goes off because it throws them and the time clock that’s built inside of them falls out of synch and that’s a bad thing, that’s a really bad thing.
GC: And you’re saying that you either have this or you don’t?
ADM: Yes, absolutely. Listen, there a many facets of music that can be studied and mastered but when it comes to this one essential innate element, you either have it or you don’t. It’s like the great pianists or percussionists of Cuba – they have it and it’s been with them since birth. It’s not something they learned.
GC: Al, do you have a favorite Luthier?
ADM: Not really. I have many guitars and several that I use more than others, but not one absolute favorite.
GC: Have I seen you playing a Paul Reed Smith electric?
ADM: Yes you have and it’s a fine instrument.
GC: What’s in the future for you after Elysium?
ADM: There are several things I’ve been thinking about. I could do a volume II of Diabolic Inventions with Piazzolla pieces. I could do something with all of my favorite pop tunes and do it the way I want to do it. These are just thoughts I’ve had. And then I have some music I could do with celebrity sidemen. Maybe I’ll do that next. But right now we’re in a terrible phase of the recording industry. Nobody is selling records anymore and you have to be able to justify taking off so much time to produce something and you spend thousands of hours only to have it not do well in the market place. Who is even buying Rolling Stone records anymore? What about McCartney’s new record? Who buys it? Nobody.
GC: What about you, Carlos Santana and Larry Coryell?
ADM: Well, you could put names together and you’d sell a few records but the trend is working against it. People buy new cars and there’s no CD player in it.
GC: How would you describe your approach to the music now vs. when you were younger? Even physically, do you notice anything different in how you approach or play the music? And related to that, how would you rate yourself against the Al Di Meola of say 35 years ago?
ADM: Well luckily I went in the direction of the acoustic guitar and on an acoustic guitar you can do far more things in terms of rhythm than ever before and so having an audience in Europe, you can take the music as deep as you want and the demand for that kind of music is much wider and deeper there in terms of that realm. In America they want the electric stuff and so I stay away from America quite a lot. I’m only doing this one last time type of thing, but we’ll see what happens. You never know, changes happen.
GC: What about your fingers, hands or wrists from the standpoint of arthritis? Any issues there?
ADM: No, they’re all good.
GC: That’s good to know. What about tinnitus?
ADM: My father was a carpenter and I used to help him out when I was a kid and the noise level from the saws running was at times unbelievable. And then I had a head injury and if you fall on your head on concrete and if you’re predisposed genetically to tinnitus then you are going to get it. Others can experience the same external stimulus, get ringing in the ears, but it’s temporary and eventually disappears. But if you’re predisposed and then suffer a head injury or are exposed to loud noises, you’ll get Tinnitus – and so for me it was the accident which kick started it, followed by some of the carpenter shop noise followed by loud music which made it worse. And then it doesn’t ever go away – it just gets worse and worse and worse and right now it’s at a maddening level.
GC: Well, do what you’ve got to do, including moving away from electric music if you must, but don’t stop the music. We like riding with the sun in our face in Elysium. Listen Al, I know you’re a very busy guy and so thank you for being generous with your time. Good luck on the upcoming European leg of the tour, best of luck always and thanks again for talking to me.
ADM: Yeah, I’m packing for Europe as we speak. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure and all the best to you as well.
To purchase Al Di Meola’s Elysium please click on the link.