Like Mozart, New Jersey-born guitarist Al Di Meola has sometimes been criticized for playing too many notes. The criticism is actually a compliment in disguise. Di Meola, who will be at the Clyde Theater Wednesday, June 20 at 7 p.m., is able to blaze through songs so quickly, listeners are often left stunned by his passion, technique and precision.
Di Meola grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey and began playing guitar at eight years old. His love of Elvis inspired him to pick up the instrument. Later, he became an enthusiast for jazz, country and bluegrass. Still later, he enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and his education continued when, at age 19, he was recruited by keyboarding and composing legend Chick Corea to take Bill Connors' place in Return to Forever, one of the leading jazz fusion bands of the 1970s.
Di Meola doesn't consider himself a prodigy, even though he did begin playing and performing live as a child. He told Downbeat Magazine that a lot of hard work was involved in becoming proficient with the guitar and in becoming comfortable with who he was as a musician and young man: "I used to practice the guitar eight to ten hours a day, and I was trying to find myself, or find the kind of music that suited where I was going with the guitar."
He credits his upbringing and native soil with helping shape his musical identity, and told NJ.com that he traveled into the Big Apple as often as he could as a teen to soak up the city's seemingly endless cultural richness.
"The advantages were tremendous, to grow up in a suburb of New York City in the 60s, when music was exploding and the industry was vibrant and for me to catch all those Latin, rock and jazz shows on a weekly basis, I was there, just absorbing."
Di Meola was with Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White when Return to Forever achieved the height of its commercial success, putting out three Top 40 albums in less than six years. The band broke up in 1976, and Di Meola pursued a solo career, putting out Land of the Midnight Sun that same year and Elegant Gypsy a year later. The latter album, a heady blend of jazz fusion, flamenco, and Mediterranean music, went Gold.
Casino and Splendido Hotel followed, as did a loyal and dedicated fan base which embraced Di Meola's versatility. Di Meola was quickly making a name for himself as both an acoustic and electric guitar player. In the early 80s, he turned more toward the electric side of things, writing and recording Electric Rendezvous and Scenario, which included the keyboard work of Jan Hammer, who would go on to compose the theme to the television show Miami Vice.
Guitar in all its forms is Di Meola's primary passion. He also loves to collaborate with other artists, and in 1980, he teamed up with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and British fusion guitarist John McLaughlin to release Friday Night in San Francisco, a beloved and popular live recording of three musicians at the top of their game.
Since then, Di Meola has played with basically everyone, including Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Steve Winwood, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa and Luciano Pavarotti.
In the 90s, Di Meola became a master of mixing together a wide array of styles and influences to make a sound all his own. A tireless student, he familiarized himself with Brazilian, Middle Eastern and African music, as well as tango and other Latin American genres. The 1991 release, World Sinfonia, ushered in a new era for the artist, and it climbed to the No. 10 spot on the Billboard Chart of Contemporary Jazz albums. Two years after that, he put out its follow-up, World Sinfonia II: Heart of the Immigrants.
The World Sinfonia name is also given to a pan-global group Di Meola, the child of Italian immigrants, formed with the help of guitarist Chris Carrington, percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, conga player Gumbi Oritz, and bandonean player Dino Saluzzi, in order to explore another side of his talent.
In October 2000, World Sinfonia put out The Grande Passion, which, according to Todd S. Jenkins of All About Jazz, is Di Meola at his most ambitious and effective :"Concentrating on the richness of these selections, one gets the impression that Di Meola is fully in love with the world and all it has to offer. Middle Eastern and Latin percussionists collaborate and bear sweet fruit; austere strings and piano plunge into gypsy fire and emerge anew like the phoenix, vibrantly reborn."
High praise, indeed. And Di Meola has never slowed down. He has never stopped writing or recording and now, at age 63, has 25 solo studio albums to his credit. That doesn't count collaborations or live albums or those for which he served as producer. In 2013, he released All Your Life, an acoustic tribute to the Beatles whom, he says on his website, influenced him greatly in his youth.
"I really credit the Beatles for the reason why I play guitar," he says. "That was a major catalyst for me to want to learn music, so their impact was pretty strong."
His most recent solo efforts are 2015's Elysium and Opus, which dropped this February. He wrote Elysium while going through a painful divorce and Opus while happy. There Di Meola goes again, covering all the emotional ground possible and doing it, according to Jeff Tamarkin of Relix, better than anyone else.
"Di Meola's playing on Opus, overall, is so utterly captivating that we might forget for a sec that it's the writing he was hoping we'd pay attention to and, indeed, these pieces are all crafted in a most masterly way," Tamarkin writes. "But it's the execution that brings them to life, and no one else would have done them justice as he does here."