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Al Di Meola at the Boulder Theater

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What caught the public ear about Di Meola initially was his impossibly fast yet precise playing, both individually and in unison with Corea and Clarke in Return to Forever. Those Mach 10 runs are still a hallmark of Di Meola's style, but the speed work is interspersed with melodic, relaxed passages creating complex and satisfying contrasts.
Al Di Meola
Boulder Theater
Boulder, Colorado
February 3, 2023

Psychologically speaking, having a split personality is usually a bad thing. Musically, it can be a delight. Guitarist Al Di Meola has had a musical split personality—one is acoustic, the other eclectric—for decades now. Two sides of the same coin, a sonic swap, aural diversity. And whichever side of the coin comes up, the audience is a winner.

Di Meola blasted onto the scene in 1974 as a 19-year-old then-new guitarist for Return to Forever (RTF). By that time, RTF had evolved from its original Brazilian/acoustic aesthetic to one involving far more electricity. Chick Corea had hired Di Meola for his electric guitar playing, and bring the electrons, he did. By 1976, the version of RTF that included Di Meola had broken up and he was out on his own. He quickly established his solo credentials with a series of Columbia albums including Land of the Midnight Sun (Columbia, 1976), Elegant Gypsy (Columbia, 1977), Casino (Columbia, 1978) and several more. Even those early albums began to show Di Meola's acoustic side, but the electric pyrotechnics seemed to be where the primary action was found.

As the '70s inevitably turned into the '80s, Di Meola started releasing albums where his acoustic guitar began crowding out his electric axes. Albums like Cielo e Terra (Manhattan, 1985), Soaring Through a Dream (Manhattan, 1985) and Tirami Su (Manhattan, 1987) heard Di Meola primarily on acoustic guitar. Friday Night in San Francisco (Columbia, 1981) with guitarists John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia was an all acoustic affair that proved wildly popular selling over four million copies. It's obvious his heart belongs to both the acoustic and electric and he has bounced back and forth in his live performances, sometimes touring with an electric band and other times assembling acoustic players in various configurations.

Friday night at the Boulder Theater was an acoustic evening. Di Meola brought a quartet (including himself). He had two percussionists and a second guitar. The percussionists added a complex rhythmic underpinning to the guitar interplay. Di Meola has long incorporated Latin and Mediterranean influences into his playing which has also drawn heavily from jazz and rock. Second guitarist Peo Alfonsi hails from Italy and is classically trained which brought further international flair to the concert. The addition of percussionists Amit Kavthekar from India on tablas and Sergio Martinez from Spain completed a true world beat band.

Alfonsi proved an excellent foil for Di Meola and his graceful/manic/melodic style. What caught the public ear about Di Meola initially was his impossibly fast yet precise playing, both individually and in unison with Corea and Clarke in Return to Forever. Those Mach 10 runs are still a hallmark of Di Meola's style, but the speed work is interspersed with melodic, relaxed passages creating complex and satisfying contrasts. Friday night, Alfonsi's playing wove in and out of Di Meola's, sometimes providing backing rhythm, sometimes counterpoint, other times taking the lead with Di Meola in a supporting role and other times joining in those impossibly fast, yet precise unison runs.

Amit Kavthekar has a sterling pedigree having studied with both Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain, two acknowledged masters of classical tabla. Like those masters, Kavthekar regularly unleashed a torrent of notes that lent an air of understated urgency to much of the performance. At other times, the steady, delicate drumming provided a soothing backdrop of gentle rain.

Martinez played a hybrid drum kit with some standard trap set drums such as a kick drum, some tom-toms and several cymbals. But, instead of a snare drum front and center, he had a conga drum. He didn't sit on a stool, but rather a cajon drum of Peruvian derivation. Most of the time he used his bare hands and when he did pick up a stick, he used brushes which kept his playing subdued and in line with the acoustic guitars.

Having been on the scene for nearly 50 years and with over 30 recording credits, Di Meola has plenty of material to draw from. The program contained mostly his originals of relatively recent vintage, a little classic Di Meola and some covers. He introduced "Turquoise" as a song from an album whose name, he said, always makes him think of Trump, Consequence of Chaos (Telarc, 2006). He then moved into several songs from a forthcoming release which will be a double album. He explained that he had a lot of time during the COVID lockdown to write.

Di Meola confesses to being a big Beatles fan. In fact, two of his recent albums are collections of Beatles covers. So, not surprisingly, we heard two Beatles tunes, "Because" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." Because he was in a chatty mood, Di Meola described some of the background of recording those songs. He was able to get some studio time at Abbey Road Studio in London and recorded three Beatles covers. He went back to New York and tried recording some more Beatles, but the magic still lingering at Abbey Road wasn't present in New York. He decided he needed to return to Abbey Road and while he was waiting for some recording time to open, he worked on preparing arrangements for the rest of the songs he would record. He planned a getaway to eastern Long Island where he rented a house for about a week and ended up next to a house where Paul McCartney was living. He equated that to winning the lottery.

Di Meola reminisced about recording Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976), RTF's most popular album, because it was recorded just west of Boulder, up Boulder Canyon at Caribou Ranch. He also talked about recording "Mediterranean Sundance," an acoustic guitar duet from his second album Elegant Gypsy. He wanted to get Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia to play with him on the tune. Columbia Records made that happen, flying de Lucia to New York from Spain for the recording session. They recorded a few takes and although things seemed promising, the guitarists hadn't quite completely fulfilled their potential. De Lucia's assistant then whispered to Di Meola that the Spanish guitarist preferred to play with some herbal assistance. Said herb was thereupon acquired and shortly after its proper application, the guitarists tried another take and nailed it. Di Meola explained that at the end of the tune on the album, you can hear de Lucia let out a soft whistle. (It's true!). Friday night, Di Meola and his band finished their set with "Mediterranean Sundance" and, instead of a soft whistle at the end, the audience gave the band a standing ovation.

Set List: First Set; Turquoise; Fandango; Immeasurable, Part 3; Tears of Hope; Poema; Cafe; Second Set; Percussion Duet; Because; Ava (written for his then 5 year old daughter); Strawberry Fields Forever; If You Need Me; Tonight Desire; Double Concerto (by Astor Piazzola); Mediterranean Sundance.

The Band; Al Di Meola: guitar; Sergio Martinez: drums; Peo Alfonsi: guitar; Amit Kavthekar: tabla.

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