“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.