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Al Di Meola Lives His Beatles Dream

February 3, 2014
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“I haven’t felt this kind of excitement since I was a little kid.”

That statement was uttered by a giddy, animated Al Di Meola when talking about his latest album. I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t that guy kind of serious? Isn’t he intense? Isn’t he a little bit of a curmudgeon? Of course he is. We all are, at least those of us who have lived long enough to see the music biz for what it is, which is a far cry from what got us into playing music in the first place. And what got us into playing music was the joy, the thrill, the revelation, and the limitless possibilities that we felt when we first heard whatever band would go on to be our favorite of all time. For a long time, that was enough to sustain us. That initial spark was so powerful that it kept us going for many years.

But then life got in the way. The seamy underbelly of the business of music tarnished that luster and put a cold, hard layer of rust on our youthful exuberance and made us gradually forget, discount, and diminish the very thing that got us here in the first place. For some reason, though, we keep at it. That’s how addictive that first hit is. We do occasionally get little glimpses—some small reminder of what it was that originally sent us down that path. And for a huge percentage of guitarists alive today, “what it was” was the first time we heard the Beatles. Even if we go on to play very different kinds of music, we never forget our first love.

Which brings us back to the very excited Mr. Di Meola. He’s all ethered up over his latest album, All Your Life, which sees him revisiting the music he loved as a kid and, well, all his life: tunes from that little four-piece combo out of Liverpool. After decades of forging a hall of fame legacy in the jazz- By Matt Blackett fusion world, setting new standards for guitar technique and composition, influencing a generation of burners and shredders, and revolutionizing what is possible on electric and acoustic guitar, Al Di has returned to his roots.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Di Meola lends what he calls “whatever it is that is ‘my style’” to the soundtrack of his—and our—youth. For such a personal journey and statement, it’s fitting that Di Meola would go it alone. Although many of the tracks feature more than one guitar as well as percussion, it’s all him. And although he certainly stretches out on many of the tunes, his deep love and respect for the originals is apparent throughout, even as he applies his aforementioned “style” to each. That style consists of amazing technical mastery; intricate, cross-picked arpeggios; profound, lush chord voicings; and a command of syncopation that is pretty much unparalleled.

How Di Meola adds his considerable talents to the music of the Beatles is fascinating, in that it ranges from a fairly straight reading, as on “Eleanor Rigby” (the only tune where he’s accompanied by strings), to an utter re-imagining, like he does on “With a Little Help from My Friends.” In between those extremes you’ll find his gorgeous interpretation of “In My Life” (with three stunning variations on George Martin’s iconic piano solo), a deep take on “Michelle,” and a powerful rendition of “I Am the Walrus.” Taken together, this collection of performances proves what we already know—that the Beatles catalog is indeed the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s not too late to regain that magic we felt as kids.
 
Begin at the beginning. What was your first Beatles experience?
I have a sister who is seven years older than me. She had brought the records home and the first record I ever heard was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and that whole Meet the Beatles thing. I was seven or eight and I liked it immediately. Then I was one of the millions of people that sat in front of the TV when they played Ed Sullivan the first time they came to America, and it was amazing. I was a Beatles freak from day one. It seemed like everyone knew immediately that they had transformed pop music and created a sound that no one else had before.

Were you already playing guitar at that point?
Prior to that I was taking accordion lessons, which was really corny and something I hated. Right around the time I got exposed to the Beatles I can remember my sister having a party at the house with a bunch of her friends. Some of them had brought over a Fender Strat and a Fender amp. They let me pick it up and play it. That was really the first time I got the thrill of wanting to pursue the instrument. I immediately started taking lessons.

You obviously went off in your own direction with your career, playing in Return to Forever and doing burning fusion. How do you get from there to doing an album of Beatles tunes?

No matter what style of music I was playing, I was always a Beatles fan. Because my current band is primarily European, they get to go home between dates on European tours. In May of 2012, I was hanging out at a hotel in Prague by myself because all the guys had left. I was thinking of how I could maybe start on this idea I’d had for many years of doing an album of my own renditions of Beatles songs. I thought of studios in the area or maybe going to Germany, and then it just came to me: what about Abbey Road? I wasn’t sure if it was even an operating studio or if it was just a tourist site. So I called up a musician friend of mine from London and I asked him if he could look into it. He got back to me and said, “That place is fully operational. All three rooms are still intact, and they have one day open.” I said, “Book it. This is going to be such a thrill.” I sent for my daughter, Oriana, and my musician buddy Hernan Romero, who I invited to act as co-producer. I wanted them to experience this special moment with me.
 
 
What does it feel like to walk in there with a guitar, sit down, they mic you up, and you realize, “I’m tracking at Abbey Road”?
It’s like a five-year-old going to Disney World for the first time. It was just like that going to Abbey Road. It was all that and more. As we get older, the thrills that we had when we were kids subside. I still enjoy music, I still like good movies, but it’s not the same. When you’re young, everything makes a much bigger impression on you. Stepping into the house of the Beatles, where they created all these legendary records, you discover that there was a reason why those records sounded so good. You walk into one of those three rooms and you can tell immediately that the acoustics are beyond anything that you’ve ever experienced before. We used some of the same mics the Beatles used, and it was my intention to record to analog 8-track because it sounds way better than 24-track analog, and all of it sounds better than digital, for sure. So it was the combination of all those elements. There wasn’t a moment that went by that we weren’t thrilled to be there. One day turned into three days, and in those three days I got three pieces in the can: “If I Fell,” “Blackbird,” and “Because.” I was super happy with it, but my intention was to finish the record in my studio in New Jersey or at a studio in New York, mainly due to the huge expense of staying in London, not to mention the Abbey Road costs. So, I went home and attempted that very thing, and I could not come close to the quality. We raised the bar so high with the first three tracks that I just couldn’t bear to lower it any. We wound up not using anything that we did in my studio or in New York and I made up my mind to go back at a later date.

 
How long before you could get back to Abbey Road?
First I had to go back to Europe to finish my tour. At the end of the tour I wanted to take the time to really come up with some more original arrangements of the remaining pieces I wanted to record. I had this idea to rent a house in the Hamptons, a place I’d never been before. But I had this strong sense that I wanted to get away from my house for five or six days and just work on the material. It was like a day or two before Labor Day weekend and there was really nothing that you could find through a realtor—unless you wanted to spend $50,000 a month or something—but I found this little house in the paper. The owner said to me, “I’ve got to tell you, your next door neighbor is a famous pop star.” I’m thinking Billy Joel or Bon Jovi or somebody like that because they have places out there. Then he told me it was Paul McCartney, and I completely got goose bumps and tears. He’s been the one guy—him and De Niro—who I’ve wanted to meet my whole life. I couldn’t believe it. I had these three songs in the can, and the Beatles and Paul and John had been on my mind constantly through this whole process, because when I get into something, that’s all I think about. Now I’m renting this house and I find out he’s my next-door neighbor [laughs]! So I drive out there, pull in my driveway, and Paul is standing there in his driveway, which is right next to mine. I’m just completely blown away. It was magic. It wasn’t until maybe the third day that I had the opportunity to meet him. He was pulling out of his driveway and I just waved at him. He rolled down the window and shook my hand and we start talking. I said, “Paul, this is an amazing story, but I’m actually recording your music at Abbey Road right now.” We went on to talking about people that we know and this and that, and that was it, and then he took off. It was like three minutes, but it felt like an hour. Then this summer, I got the opportunity to present Paul with the finished CD. I can’t honestly say that he’s heard it yet but it was just an amazing experience—almost surreal. It’s a feeling you don’t get very often in life.

Talk me through the recording process.
We used two or three mics up close, including a Neumann KM 254 and a Schoeps condenser. We also placed some vintage Neumanns, which were actually used on seven Beatles albums, far away because the ceilings are really high and amazing sounding. We used the same reverb chamber they used, which is on the Abbey Road rooftop. The guitars that I primarily used were my signature model Conde Hermanos nylon-string, which is a cutaway, and a full-bodied rosewood Conde Hermanos on “She’s Leaving Home.” I played my 1948 Martin D-18 steel-string and I also had a Gibson J-200 that I used on several songs, one being “I Will.” You can really hear the size of the guitar, and it’s amazing. I played an Ovation and a Taylor on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and I used an Ovation 12-string on “Because.” Some of the songs have some overdubs and a couple of pieces are primarily solo, like “Blackbird” and “Michelle.”

Take “In My Life” and describe how you’re interpreting the intro in terms of the groove, the timing, and the note choices.
It’s all in 4/4, but it’s syncopated. My approach to a lot of music has to do with rhythmic syncopation. I’m just not squaring off a lot of the parts the way they were written or originally recorded. It’s always been my approach and something I’ve been honing and working on for many years. I thought that by doing it carefully, I could bring something new to the music, rather than doing a copy of the music, which I did not want to do. So it’s kind of like a little bit classical, a little bit of syncopation, and a little bit of Latin influences mixed, but hopefully in a tasteful way. I didn’t want to go too far one way or the other.
     
From a harmony standpoint, I wanted to keep it recognizable. I did not want to completely alter the harmonic structure and bring in all these strange jazz chords that would have ruined the beauty of what was originally there. I think you know what I’m talking about. A lot of people, especially in the jazz realm, get so far from the tune it’s like you don’t even recognize it. I didn’t want to do that.

How much can you modify a classic line like the intro to “In My Life” before it gets unrecognizable?

It’s not easy and it requires a careful blending. I had to get this far into my own life as a player and develop whatever it is that is my style to be able to do this. In fact some of this material, like “Penny Lane” and “Michelle,” was some of the hardest music I’ve ever played in my life. It’s crazy but it’s true. There’s some really big string skipping stuff happening while syncopating and keeping the melody up in the top range. Sometimes the melody is displaced, but at least you know it’s the tune. To do that effectively was a real challenge.

Your solo section on “In My Life” has three distinct movements to it. On the first, you stay pretty faithful to the notes in the George Martin piano solo, although you’re cadencing the rhythms differently. Then you provide some answer lines and counterpoint, and then you just burn over the progression. Talk about your mindset with those.

The George Martin classical-sounding harpsichord part is so cool. It’s always been cool. My approach was once again to take the squareness out of it and syncopate it, almost swing it a little bit and displace the rhythm a little bit. It’s just the way I feel it, and that’s what happened there. Then there are the countermelody parts, which were planned out. Finally it goes to the little segue that I wrote that takes you into the improvisation over the harmonic structure. The song has really nice changes that you can do this kind of improvisation on. “Because” is another one—damn good changes and some hip changes. It’s not something you relate to the Beatles because they never really got into these extended solo things, but when you break down the harmony of some of these songs, you can do some nice improv work with it.

When you add a second guitar to “And I Love Her,” it’s a steel-string, even though that tune is probably the most famous nylon-string tune in their whole catalog. How did you choose which guitars appeared on which tunes?
I don’t know. It was instinctual at the moment, really. There wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and experiment. I was really fired up and totally inspired to be there, and things happened fast because they had to. But I will say this: There’s nothing better than a nylon and a steel. It’s better than two nylons for sure, when you have that blending and separation.

“And I Love Her,” like many of the tunes, has more than one guitar track. Were you recording them to a click?

On a lot of these tunes, I played percussion on the face of the guitar or I chucked some kind of rhythm on the strings. A couple of songs had claps, but there’s no real percussion. I just basically used the guitars as a substitute for that. We then either looped it or recorded it all the way through, depending on the piece, so I had something to track to other than an awful sounding click.

So it wasn’t difficult to sync up the guitar tracks?
No. To get the point where it was comfortable playing some of the syncopated hard parts of songs like “Penny Lane,” that was a bit of work. “I Am the Walrus” was another one that was brutal. When you listen to it, you don’t think of that. I mean, hopefully people don’t think of that. But I can tell you that it was, because the way that I played the melody, it was always part of a chord. The melody is super easy [sings “I am he as you are he…”], but the chords keep changing. It was kind of an ambitious thing to try to get down smoothly. I think what made my version of “I Am the Walrus” kind of original and what took it away from the big production that they had was I didn’t use drums in the traditional sense. I took the rhythm guitar and arpeggiated it as kind of a substitute for the percussion or the drums. One side is the melody and the other channel is the rhythm guitar doing a rhythm that’s very different from the original piece. I’m really percussion-minded when I’m playing or even when I’m writing. So that tune is unique, probably due to that fact.

Is your intro to “Michelle” all one track, with the one ascending and one descending line before you quote the George part?
Yeah, “Michelle” is primarily a solo piece. That intro part is something I worked up. There are just a couple places where I doubled something in. About four minutes in there’s a little improv against the chords.

Did you write charts out for these songs?
Whenever you hear something that wasn’t part of the Beatles version, like the intro to “Eleanor Rigby,” and my original parts in “With a Little Help from My Friends,” I would chart those out. I wrote out all the lines that I actually composed, so I wouldn’t forget them. As for the parts that we all know and love, those I didn’t have to write down because I have them in my head.

You’ve talked a lot about the rhythms and syncopation on these songs. What can you say about how your sense of the groove has evolved over time? How do you feel it’s different now compared to the way you felt time back in your Elegant Gypsy days?
In those days I was playing primarily electric, so it was obviously more of a sustain-y, lyrical vibe and I didn’t have as much opportunity to play in a rhythmic vein like I do on acoustic. That all started to change with Paco [de Lucia] on “Mediterranean Sundance” from Elegant Gypsy. Then I kind of cultivated that and got more into it when we did the trio stuff from ’80 to ’83. Over the years I’ve been developing my sense of being inspired by percussion and rhythm and translating it back to the guitar. I tell people, if you can master your sense of time and play syncopated rhythms against the time without the time moving, there’s great opportunity. The door really opens for what you can do with music. But it’s amazing how many musicians think they have great time but really they rely on the drummer or the other players to keep them in time. As soon as that drops out, though, what do you do? If you can find that you have a center that doesn’t move—no matter what you do on top of it— then you can play pretty interesting rhythms.

What advice do you have for players that want to improve their time for exactly the reasons you just cited?
Slow it down. Slow it way, way down and be very conscious of the foot, because the foot is more important than your hands. It’s a real hard thing to do. It’s not something you can learn, you just discover if you have it or not. If you have it, then your world opens up for what you can do rhythmically with the music. If you don’t have it, there’s not much you can do except just play with a metronome or a drummer or a percussionist— somebody who’s going to help you stay in time—but that’s probably not going to help you advance in the direction of syncopation and rhythm as much as if you had it internally, like Chick Corea or Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Steve Gadd. Those are some musicians that have an innate sense of solid time and they can play anything against that time, and that’s what makes it exciting.

Slowing everything down is also a good way to develop speed. You weren’t the first guy to play fast, but you were the guy that inspired the most guitarists to try and acquire huge technique. Back in the day, were you aware that all these young rockers were citing you as a big influence on their chops?
No, not so much. Sometimes I would read my name in their articles and I thought it was kind of cool. But whenever I read stuff from shred players, I always thought, “Really? Wow.” I never associated myself and my music with anything to do with shred [laughs]. It was complimentary, though.

A common complaint with highly technical playing is that even though the music has chops, it lacks soul. What is the secret to having chops but not losing the emotion?
It’s complex. I’ve always been against lack of content or lack of composition, where there’s just so much fast playing that not much is being said. I think I have enough of a history now where the composition is like the main thing. I should also say, there’s not a lack of great players out there with technique. There are tons. But there are not a lot of things that I can point my finger at and say the music is also happening. That’s just me—because I’ve been more and more focusing on composition, and technique is not the first thing on my mind like it might have been in the ’70s. The ’70s was all about flash. Everything was played at breakneck tempos. Over the years, though, it was the music that mattered and what was going to keep you grounded and solidified for the future, not just playing a million miles an hour.

A lot of the compositions on your early records have held up pretty well, and your fans still really dig that stuff. You’ve obviously moved through a bunch of different changes over the years, but do you have some personal favorites from those early records of yours?
Yeah. I recently revisited Casino and I love “Egyptian Danza.” I love the feel of some of those pieces. The rhythm section is Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson. The energy of those records and the analog punch of those recordings, I really miss an element of it. I come from a great background where I was tremendously inspired by Chick’s writing. Even though we were one of the three more famous fusion bands, it was highly compositional music. So that was as much an influence as anything else. When I went off on my own, I was coming from a good place and with a pretty good background of influences even prior to that, the Beatles being one. I think some of my melodic sense and definitely my production ideas have come primarily from the Beatles and George Martin. You wouldn’t know it because the music is so different, but I can now see it more clearly after all of these years. When I’m mixing, I’m constantly thinking of how cool it is to put the drums on one side. Nobody does that but I love that. And maybe put a counter-rhythm percussion part on the right side that has nothing to do with what the drummer’s doing. You have every part playing a separate rhythm and all these counter rhythms or counterpoint going on at the same time, but with clarity because you have separation. That came from the Beatles.

A lot of your fans might find it surprising that you connect on such a deep level with “pop music.”
The Beatles’ music doesn’t have the complexity, and it’s not meant to have the complexity of, say, the music of Astor Piazzolla, which is some of the most inspiring music from one of my greatest influences that I love on a different level. But listen to songs like “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane,” and then factor in that these guys were in their early to mid-20s. How is this possible? Just like, how is it possible that Francis Ford Coppola at 26 or 27 years old made The Godfather? It’s unbelievable and it’s inspiring. So when I hear that music now—and I’m listening to it a lot because I’ve been so involved with this project—it’s just amazing how much beauty there is in those compositions, even though they’re not super long and complex.

There’s a sense that there’s something to this music that supersedes a lot of the stuff surrounding it and what came after. Where do you put the Beatles in the grand scheme of not just popular music, but music throughout history? How important are the Beatles?
The most important. It’s almost sacred, it’s so great. I have a tremendous love of Astor Piazzolla and I have a background with Chick and there are obviously so many great composers. But what I found was a lot of us from fusion or jazz, as time went on, more and more of us were making records that were more complex and more involved. It became harder and harder to listen to, except if you were a real serious musician, and even that was diminishing. So I thought, man, what the hell am I going to talk about in an interview if I do another record like my last one, or the one before that, or the one before that? So I revisited the Beatles and the enjoyment level was so high that I figured it was a good time to do something radically different than what people might expect. I wanted to not only play material that could bring me back to why I wanted to get involved with music in the first place, but to somehow blend into it my little thing that I have developed. I’m as proud of this record, even more so maybe, than anything that I’ve ever done, because somehow it connects me back to that feeling I had in the beginning where I was so knocked out and inspired. There’s a connection there that I feel really good about, especially experiencing Abbey Road and everything. I used to stare at those records in my room upstairs from my parents and just dream. We all did. But I got to live a little bit of it and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
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