Despite the fact that jazz/rock fusion is often maligned, marginalized, and overlooked by the general listening public, the genre has provided guitarists with a treasure trove of revered practitioners and recordings. It’s also the ultimate research and development lab, where daring cross-pollinations between rock guitar’s thunderous power, jazz’s harmonic complexities, and world music’s exotic timbres and rhythms are allowed to freely grow and blossom.
Debuting while still in his teens with seminal fusion foursome Return to Forever (alongside bassist Stanley Clarke, keyboardist Chick Corea, and drummer Lenny White), guitarist Al Di Meola has risen to become one of the genre’s most influential 6-string sorcerers, admired for his blazing technique, bold compositions, and unbridled passion. After releasing a trio of groundbreaking albums with RTF, Di Meola embarked on a successful solo career. His multi-sectional flamenco-influenced compositions, harmonic-minor melodicism, and blazing sextuplet runs were influential on an entire generation of progressive metal and shred guitarists, including Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, and John Petrucci, while his compositions “Mediterranean Sundance,” “Egyptian Danza,” and “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway” became standards of the era. So substantial was Di Meola’s hegemony during this time period that Guitar Player readers annually anointed him Best Jazz Guitarist, (in addition to multiple awards for Best Guitar Album and Best Acoustic Guitarist), enshrining him in the hallowed Gallery of the Greats before his 30th birthday!
In 1981, Di Meola’s increased interest in acoustic music and flamenco guitar led to a collaboration with noted nylon-string artisan Paco de Lucia and modern jazz heavyweight John McLaughlin. A live concert recording released as Friday Night in San Francisco would become one of the most popular instrumental guitar recordings ever, selling over two million copies worldwide, and be regarded as a milestone moment in the burgeoning world music scene.
During the subsequent decades, Di Meola began moving away from the electrified intensity of his earlier work. To some extent this was a consequence of the hearing loss he suffered while playing loud electric gigs, but it also paralleled his increasing affinity for Spanish, Mediterranean, African, and Middle Eastern music as exemplified by the recordings by his World Sinfonia ensemble. Over the last decade, Di Meola has returned to playing electric more frequently, reunited with his Return to Forever bandmates, and stretched his artistic oeuvre further by releasing All Your Life, an acoustic reimagining of the music of the Beatles.
Di Meola’s latest release, Elysium, is in many ways his ultimate fusion: an intriguing concoction of acoustic and electric guitar tones, earthy world beats, and sophisticated jazz harmonies. On his current tour, Di Meola is revisiting music from his 1977 breakthrough album, ElegantGypsy, as well as presenting a wide range of favorites from his four-decade career.
What made you decide to forgo recording any bass parts on Elysium?
It was originally intended to be an all acoustic record. Adding the electric guitar was kind of a last-minute decision. A former roadie of mine named Sean Haines was raving on Facebook about this pedalboard he had assembled. I’ve never really been a pedalboard guy, but I became curious about what the new technology had to offer. He brought the board, his Les Paul, and his amp over to my place and I started playing some of my new compositions through the setup. I was blown away by the tone, and immediately began to envision a role for the electric in the new material, particularly playing melodies against the acoustic arpeggios. I wound up borrowing his pedalboard for the recording while he built me a new one. I dug out all my old Les Pauls, and began to reconnect with what it was that had drawn people to my playing in the first place.
If I knew I was going to wind up playing electric on the record, I may have had a bass on there from the beginning, but a lot of the low end frequencies are actually covered by the cajon and the other percussion instruments, so I tracked the electric and left everything else intact.
Aside from your old Les Pauls, what other guitars did you use on Elysium?
I used several Conde Hermanos nylon-strings, including my cutaway signature models, and a 1982 full-bodied one I bought in Munich for the title track and “La Lluvia.” I also used a Guild 12-string on some tunes, and a 1948 Martin 0-18 on “Purple and Gold.”
Many of the nylon-string melodies are shadowed by a high-octave chime-y bell sound. Is that played by keyboards or triggered by a guitar synthesizer?
It’s actually a patch on my Roland VG-88 V-Guitar System. I split the signal on the nylon-string. One is dry and the other goes through the guitar synth, and I bring the effect in and out with a volume pedal to blend the two sounds together. When I’m playing in an ensemble, the low end from other instruments can really drown out the nylon-string, so this is a way to give it some punch and clarity, especially live. It’s really there more so that the nylon-string doesn’t get lost in the mix than for the actual tone. Live, I occasionally trigger a digitally simulated electric sound as well. It looks a little disjointed, because I’m playing acoustic and you’re hearing an overdriven Les Paul. Sometimes I’ll also trigger a bass patch, which is probably my favorite of the sounds. I see it as an orchestration tool and a way of emphasizing the melody the nylon-string is playing.
A majority of the songs on Elysium are in some sort of triple meter such as 3/4 or 6/8. Was that deliberate?
Not really, but very often three just feels best to me. The swing factor is so much higher in three. I like the way syncopated rhythms feel in 6/8 as opposed to 4/4. Sometimes I’ll write a piece in four then wind up changing it to three because it works better. “This Way Before” from Consequence of Chaos is a good example.
Your last album, All Your Life, was an instrumental acoustic tribute to the Beatles that you recorded at Abbey Road. Did anything from that experience carry over into the making of Elysium?
Not so much in the writing and playing. When I started coming up with the material for Elysium, I went into a different world. I was going through a rough divorce, and locking myself away in my studio and writing was a means of escape. Over the course of writing and recording, things got better in my personal life and this became an important transitional record for me both musically and personally. I could have just as easily called it From Dark to Light.
One area where I think the Beatles influence has always carried over in my recordings is in the production. I like the mix to be à la George Martin, with a lot of separation between the instruments: drums and melody on one side, and maybe bass and counterpoint on the other. For example, most people mix with the drums across the whole spectrum, but I find that if I do that, and I want to add an independent percussion part later, there’s no place to put it. It just sounds like mush. By separating the parts in different channels, however, you get this beautiful, mind-blowing clarity in the counterpoint. Because George Martin only had four or eight tracks to work with, and he used stereo separation, all the strings on Beatles records sound so incredibly huge and clear.
So you’re very hands-on in the mixing process?
Actually, I hate the tedium of mixing. Especially now with Pro Tools, which is really “Slow Tools” because you wait forever for the simplest thing to get done. I really preferred the hands-on approach of the past where, with the simple push of a fader, you could change the mix. I understand that Pro Tools gives you a lot of options and I use it, but only out of necessity. When I recorded All Your Life, I actually A/B-ed 4-track reel-to-reel against Pro Tools and the 4-track blew it away. We are still in the dark ages with this all this digital stuff. Thankfully, I was able to rely on Katsuhiko Naito, one of the hardest-working engineers out there, to deliver my vision. He’s so good and I trust him so completely, I actually let him mix my record on his own. Without my input, he nailed about 90 percent of what I wanted!
On your current tour, aside from playing the newer songs, you’re revisiting a lot of material from the Elegant Gypsy era. Are you adhering to the original recordings or have the tracks been rearranged at all?
I’m staying pretty faithful. The original bass and drum parts that Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd played were so killer, it would be nearly impossible to improve on them. I stressed to my current band to really listen to how the parts were executed. In fact, I made my bassist get rid of his 6-string bass and play a Fender Precision.
So you’re not a fan of 6-string basses?
No. Not really. They may give you a bigger sound but I believe you wind up sacrificing clarity for mass. The low end becomes so boomy. What good is playing an interesting line if it sounds muddy? And if you play with your fingers, the notes become even less distinct. If you listen to a Fender P-Bass played with a pick, you can hear every note clearly.
In the liner notes to Elysium you thank “my pledgers who help the cause of the American Tinnitus Association.” Can you speak about your experience with tinnitus?
I’ve suffered with screaming tinnitus in my ears from years of playing in front of loud amps and drums. It’s essentially why I gave up playing electric. Once you have it, there’s nothing you can really do except learn to live with it. So if you’re a young musician, you need to protect your hearing and wear some sort of earplugs from the get-go. People recommend using in-ear monitors, but I actually think those are worse. I wouldn’t recommend going that route. You have to turn them up to be able to hear them over the drums, and the sound is hitting your eardrum directly. Live, I face my speaker towards the back wall and I don’t use a monitor. I have custom made plugs that lower the frequency by 30dB, but mostly I just use those wax plugs you can buy at CVS, and monitor everything through ambient sound. Ambient sound I can handle, but that direct sound is the killer.
One thing that’s striking about the songs on Elysium—and your music in general—is that, despite having an acoustic “world music” feel, they are highly structured jazz compositions as opposed to just modal vamps over one or two chords.
It was vamping over one or two chords that killed fusion. There were a lot of wonderful players—and today there are more great players than ever—but there are not that many good composers. If you don’t have enough of the right ingredients in your soup, it’s not going to taste right. By the same token, if there are not enough elements in the music, it’s not going to hold your attention. For me, music that’s rich starts with interesting rhythms that grab you and hold your attention.
That’s really number one. Then, I like interesting and unpredictable harmonic changes, and strong melody. The music on Elysium may not be for everybody. It’s more geared toward serious musicians, but that’s okay. I’m really proud of this record and I put a lot of time and thought into the compositions. I don’t want to just be known as a guitar player. I’m a composer, as well.