Kiss My Axe: Jazz Legend Al Di Meola on Picking and “Angularity”
With a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty slung over his shoulders, Al Di Meola arrived on the fusion scene in 1974 as a 19-year-old gunslinger with a reputation as one of the fastest pickers in the realm. Listening to his early classic recordings with Return to Forever, like “Where Have I Known You Before” and “Romantic Warrior,” or his first solo albums Land of the Midnight Sun and his 1977 pop-world breakthrough Elegant Gypsy, it’s obvious that for speed, clean diction, tone and imaginative breadth, Di Meola had few peers and perhaps just one superior — fellow Gibson legend John McLaughlin, whose tommy-gun riffing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on an EDS-1275 remains among the most staggering six-string every recorded.
Over the decades Di Meola has retooled his approach. The stacks of Marshall amps are gone, and he has evolved into one of the most creative composers and players on the world music scene. Flamenco was already an important part of Di Meola’s vocabulary by the time he recorded Elegant Gypsy, but he began his transition in earnest with a series of albums he cut in an acoustic guitar trio with McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia beginning in 1980. And the die was fully cast when he met the late great Argentine composer of modern tango, Astor Piazzolla, who became an important mid-career influence.
The problem with fusion, as Di Meola, who can still burn like a Saturn V propulsion module, puts it, is “that music has complexity and technique, but never really goes to the heart.” In Piazzolla’s music, “I found a combination of the cerebral and the extremely complex with a compositional sensibility that shot right for the heart. When it’s played properly it doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.”
For 20 years Di Meola, who mostly plays acoustic these days but continues to unleash the occasional electric whirlwind live and on disc, has set the same lofty goal for himself with his World Sinfonia band — a group of crack players gathered from the U.S., the Caribbean and Europe who pursue his often-Piazzolla-informed writing with a honed dedication to beauty. On their latest album, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, Di Meola and his crew weave artfully through the intricate web of compositions like the tango-flavored “Paramour’s Lullaby” and “Gumbiero,” and apply their mix of Latin, classical and rock influences to a sweeping rendition of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.”
Although when we spoke on the phone Di Meola cautioned that fans shouldn’t come to his shows expecting to hear his 1977 FM radio hit “Race With Devil On Spanish Highway,” where his motoring riffage gave an also-emerging Eddie Van Halen a run for airplay, he busted the tune out for the finale of a recent Nashville show that lasted two hours and displayed Di Meola’s astonishing picking technique on acoustic steel- and nylon-string and electric guitars.
“I had developed that picking technique on my own, even before I went to Berklee,” says Di Meola, referencing the famed music school where Return to Forever boss Chick Corea found him enrolled as a sophomore and drafted Di Meola. And over the years he’s applied it to a variety of guitars, including Gibson Les Paul Sunbursts and Gibson ES-175s.
The key to Di Meola’s picking, which gives him a distinct, cutting sound, is muting. Plus a blazingly fluid right wrist for high velocity, and deadly accurate alternate picking. Di Meola rarely uses hammer-ons or pull-offs, basing his attack on pure speed and muted bottom strings, with plenty of sustain dialed in when he’s on electric guitar.
“What I do is far more effective than sweep picking, where there’s no attack at all,” Di Meola explains. “I accent the beat using upstrokes, and the key is knowing how a particular beat needs to fall. It feels almost like the Latin clavé in a sense.
“I was fortunate to have a local guitar teacher assigned to me by a music school when I was nine who happened to be a very well-accomplished jazz player in the school of Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow. Coming of age in New Jersey also put me in proximity of the great New York City jazz, rock and Latin music clubs, so I was able to absorb so much music even before going to Berklee.”
What’s new about Di Meola’s playing — and “new” is important, since he believes that evolution is critical to artistry — is the angularity of the lines he’s playing on his most recent compositions, particularly those on Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody.
“That angularity is the ‘radical’ part,” Di Meola says with a chuckle. “I view the album as a fine combination of the angular and the melodic. It’s interesting to write and play melodies over angular parts that open up new ideas for counterpoint and harmony. At this point, I’m bored with the same-old, same-old. Usually a composition starts out with an arpeggiated part that suggests angular harmonies, and then it’s a cinch to write a melody on top of that instead of struggling to write something over a less interesting foundation that we’ve all heard before.
“This is a far more complex and rewarding music to play correctly that what we did on the Return to Forever reunion tour [in 2008],” Di Meola continues. “That was a piece of cake — although back when I was 19 it was not a piece of cake. If all goes well as a musician, you outgrow your past.”