When jazz guitarist Al Di Meola was 19, he received an unexpected call.
It was from jazz pianist Chick Corea asking him to join the jazz fusion group Return to Forever.
If you know very little about jazz or jazz history, this anecdote probably means nothing to you.
A rough equivalent in the rock world would be if Eddie Vedder called someone as he was about perform at a Mad Anthony open mic night and asked him to join Pearl Jam.
Di Meola wasn’t quite as anonymous at the time as that fictional open mic performer.
But the call was still a stunner.
Work ethic and humility
More than 45 years later, Di Meola is one of the most revered living jazz guitarists.
He will conduct a two-day recording master class at Sweetwater Sound on October 4 and 5 and will perform in the Club Room at the Clyde Theater on October 5.
Recalling the big break that Corea gave him in 1973, Di Meola refuses to muster false bravado.
“To be honest, I was frightened to death,” Di Meola said in a phone interview. “I was really just a baby, you know. These guys were already legends in my mind. I was thrown in some deep water. I either had to swim or sink.”
In fact, Di Meola felt like he was sinking early on. He told Corea that he thought he should find another guitarist.
“Chick had a lot of belief in my ability, much more than I had in my ability,” he said. “There was a point where I told him, ‘Maybe I should bow out. Maybe this is too much.’ And Chick said, ‘No, no. no. You’re doing great.’”
What Corea appreciated about Di Meola was his work ethic and his humility.
“I know from having my own band, it’s really the attitude first and the ability second,” he said. “I had this kind of ‘I’ll do whatever you need and practice as hard as I can’ attitude. So he liked that and he persuaded me to stay. And I thought, ‘Well, if he has that much belief in me, now I really have to work super hard.’”
Di Meola recorded three albums with Return to Forever, including Romantic Warrior, which was an enormous commercial and critical hit.
The end of the group
What tore the group apart ultimately wasn’t creative differences. It was a less common culprit: Scientology.
Di Meola said Corea was and still is a highly placed Scientologist and he urged everyone who worked with him to become Scientologists if they weren’t already.
Because he looked up to Corea, Di Meola took a couple of Scientology classes until it all got so “bizarre” that he decided it wasn’t for him.
Scientology is the main reason Return to Forever didn’t last longer than it did, he said.
“We could have been playing arenas,” Di Meola said. “We could have had not one Romantic Warrior, but five to ten great records. It’s a damn shame. When I write the book about my life, it’s going to be in there.”
Return to Forever did, however, provide a great foundation for Di Meola’s solo career.
“I was a big fan of how Chick played and how he composed,” he said. “There are no lack of great players in fusion but there’s not a lot of composers. There are guys who think they’re composers but aren’t. I come from a tradition of a band that was very composition-oriented.”
Di Meola went on to create or participate in nine albums of material for Columbia Records.
In 1983, Columbia decided to remix a song called “Sequencer” for the dance club market and, thus it was that Di Meola found himself touring discos for a short time.
“I was really uncomfortable,” he said. “They picked me up in a limo and I went from disco to disco.”
A few years later, Di Meola began to feel that fusion had grown cold.
He was on a package tour with other fusion artists and he decided to sit in the audience and listen.
“As much as I admired and I still admire the tremendous ability of these guys, I wasn’t moved,” Di Meola said. “It was cerebral in terms of being intelligent, but it wasn’t touching my heart.”
Falling in Love with music again
It was around this time that he discovered the music of — and struck up a friendship with — Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla.
“I was completely blown away by how his music was not only a technical and classical type of music, but it had the widest range of emotions,” Di Meola said. “It was intelligent and it zeroed right in on your heart. A lot of his music can make you cry. It was so deep.”
Piazzolla reminded Di Meola of what made him fall in love with music in the first place.
“Music like the Beatles,” he said. “Everything was singable. But it had an aesthetic. It was also very beautiful.”
Piazzolla forever changed how Di Meola approaches composition.
“In my show, I always include their influences,” he said. “I will always do something by Lennon & McCartney and Piazzolla until the day I stop playing. They will always be a part of it because they are so much a part of me. They’re more a part of me than Return to Forever is.”
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