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Exclusive JGT Video Podcast With Al Di Meola, February 2023



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Jazz Guitar Today’s Bob Bakert talks to the legendary Al Di Meola about his current tour, Return to Forever, Saturday Night in San Francisco, and more.

Bob Bakert, Jazz Guitar Today: Al Dimeola came onto the scene in 1974 with Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever”. He played Chick’s compositions with a Les Paul through a Marshall using extended scales and modes, all four fingers on his left hand, with blistering face-ripping speed – he disrupting the hell out of even the best guitar players of the day. The speed, articulation, and complexity of lines in Corea’s compositions were simply dazzling.  Since then, Al has had an amazing career. He is one of the world’s great guitar composers and his solo recordings and collaborations have sold many millions of copies. “Friday Night in San Francisco” with McLaughlin and DeLucia sold over 7 Million alone…

Al Di Meola is currently on tour (Feb 2023). I caught the show last Friday in Atlanta’s City Winery – Stellar! We at JGT are incredibly grateful to have Al DiMeola sit down with us to talk about his recent projects, as well as some great anecdotes from his incredibly prolific career. Enjoy our presentation of Al DiMeola.

Below are excerpts from the interview with Al and Bob Bakert from late January 2023:

On composition and improvisation

Al Di Meola: Yeah, there’s a lot of substance to the compositions and they tell a story, –  cause there are so many different movements going on. So if you don’t have the ability to read music, it’s really hard to retain it all. I see a lot of guys today that have tremendous technique, and wicked hammer on the fretboard styles, but I never really hear what they’re doing within a composition. They’re just showing up their technique and how they apply it is the main thing. So I think I had a really good start with Return To Forever. At the time, Chick, Stanley, and Lenny were already legends, so when I joined the band, it was sink or swim for me… 

God passed me the football and let me tell you, I had to either grow fast or I’m not going be able to handle it. And there was a time when I thought I just can’t handle it. It was just too much. But then, I got past that point and discovered I had the ability to write. I didn’t want to take on that responsibility but Chick…God bless Chick. He wanted us to contribute our own compositions. I would’ve rather just played his stuff, but he pushed us to compose. So I had to figure out if I could compose. I think the influence of all the initial parts of being with the band, really inspired me to become a composer. Chick said that if you can improvise, then you can compose. A lot of those classical guys from hundreds of years ago that that composed – they were actually great improvisers or else they wouldn’t have been able to compose. 

Integrating acoustic guitar into the show…

Al Di Meola: Well, John, John, when I was a teenager, I went to see John as what the first version of Mahavishnu and he did a little, maybe it was even just one song with an Ovation guitar, acoustically. It definitely made an impact. But then when I started with Return to Forever. As soon as I joined the band, Chick wanted to do an acoustic set, and I was like, “Oh, God, acoustic, oh man, how am I going to do? What am I going to do with that?” So it, I was just kind of forced into coming up with stuff. I’ll never forget it, I think it was maybe even the first, my first gig with Return To Forever, I played an Ovation steel string. In that little 15-minute spot that I had, I just came up with stuff – then at one moment, I just did a lick from the Allman Brothers, (from Midnight Rider). And the whole place exploded into applause, when I left the stage after that, Chick came up to me. He was like, what the hell was that?  What did you just play? How did you get the audience to do that? I said, well, I played a little, a little piece from a song from the Alman brothers.  Chick said, who were they?  He had no clue about any of this stuff.  You know, it connected with people. 

Creative Output…

Al Di Meola: (After listening to “Saturday Night in San Francisco) Yeah, I know. We listened to it. Now we go, holy shit, we can’t do that anymore – not like that.

I think there’s something that can be said about the energy that you have in your twenties. I mean, look what the Beatles did. Look what they produced when they were in their twenties in during the 1960s  – it was far better than anything they did after that.

When artists are young there’s a surge of creative output – the quantity, the quality, the proficiency, the velocity, and all of that stuff was at a height. But then, then after touring with John and Paco, I had a little frustration with the trio because everything was super-fast. I think that’s what John liked. John liked everything like super-fast.  In the beginning, it was a very healthy kind of competition because we were playing for one another. And the audience got the benefit of watching us, almost compete in a way, because one guy would take a solo and we’re watching that solo and going, “Holy Jesus, that was that great.” Okay, now it’s my turn… Oh shoot, I have to come up with some stuff not only to play but to go beyond it. 

So that was the plus and positive side of that whole experience with them. But as a composer, I really had this whole other thing. And that’s what I put a lot of attention on for the 20 or 30 years after that – that kind of maturity thing that just evolved and continues to evolve. But I know that I have to get back to some of the more popular things of that era. Cause that’s what people are most familiar with. 

Taking care of the hands…

Al Di Meola: Well, the hands are going through some physical changes and it’s an age thing. Bones start shifting and certain things start happening. So rather than go through surgery on them, I just gave them a big rest these last two months.  I’m just starting up play again to see if I can get back to the level that I was known for. But yeah, there’s, there are certain things that don’t seem the same in terms of velocity. Or I have to see if it’s just the fact that I had more time to practice back in the day. I had five to six more hours of practice every day than I do now because of these damn phones and computers. Yeah. So, I think that that is a major factor in not only just more practice time but focus. The focus we had on our music was so much greater before the phones became an issue where you’re checking something out and then you go to some other thing and then you forget what you were looking for. 

And then, oh, let’s see who’s contacting me on Facebook. Okay, now let’s go to my messages. Oh my God. And then you’re so busy with the variety of different things you have to answer, or you get caught up in stories, or you feel compelled to write to a bunch of people. So all of that’s kind of taken five to six hours of everybody’s day. Away from what they might have spent, like in our case, on music. 

On the current 2023 tour

What is the Al Di Meola style?

Al Di Meola: My first love was drums and percussion. I wind up doing all of my percussion on my records myself. I just hear and I’ve practiced rhythm – all of my high school years I pretty much wasn’t paying attention too much to what the class was about. But under the desk – I was tapping quarter notes with my foot softly and on top of the desk. I was just basically playing. And none of that would make sense unless this was happening with my foot under the desk. So I’m playing all of this against this, can’t hear the foot, but it’s down there. I’m always tapping quarter notes. I’m always playing against the quarter notes. So if the quarter note’s doing this now – all of that gave me an idea. 

When I was in high school, so go figure, why I would ever think such a thing… I don’t know where it came from, but I thought that if I do this constantly and I develop my rhythm, I can carry it over into my guitar playing. Well, it worked…

Al Di Meola throughout the years…

Return To Forever
Al with Carlos Santana
Al with Frank Zappa
Al with Jimmy Page
Al with Paco de Lucia
Al with Steve Vai

More on Al Di Meola

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