Al Di Meola | 02.27 | S.F.

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Words by: Eric Podolsky

Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia :: 02.27.09 :: Palace of Fine Arts :: San Francisco, CA

Al Di Meola on his Prism guitar from aldimeola.com
In the current landscape of performing jazz/fusion guitarists, there are very few that are considered to be true legends of their time. Few will argue that Al Di Meola is one of them, as his fretboard virtuosity and unique gypsy/flamenco style have been influencing musicians for over 30 years now. Since Di Meola has put aside his highly publicized one-shot reunion with Return to Forever (which proved to be better than most expected), he is able to get back to playing his own music, which is a signature blend of clean, acoustic world-style compositional jazz. In executing this unique sound, Di Meola’s own World Sinfonia band creates music which extends and compliments the immaculate, pristine tone of his guitar.

Di Meola started off his show at The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco’s Marina District with some hushed acoustic compositions, which set the tone for the night and introduced the well behaved, mostly middle-aged audience to his stellar ensemble. Right off the bat, the interplay between Di Meola and accordionist Fausto Beccalossi jumped to the forefront of the music. Beccalossi’s accordion not only defined the music with its European feel, but his incredible mastery of the instrument inspired some breathtaking duels with Di Meola, as Beccalossi proved to be Di Meola’s musical foil all night long with his complex lines. One composition entitled “Cafe 1930” was comprised solely of a delicate guitar/accordion duet until the very end of the song, at which point the full band joined in to bring it home. As can be inferred from this song’s title, Di Meola’s music specializes in evocative soundscapes, bringing the listener to a foreign place with his carefully chosen instrumentation and sonic textures. Throughout the night, the notes coming from Di Meola’s nylon-stringed acoustic guitar were often colored with MIDI sounds to add some extra sonic brushstrokes. This concept was also accentuated through slow-motion projections behind the band of evocative landscapes from around the world.

After some more lyrical, intricate acoustic numbers, Di Meola arose from his seat and strapped on his rainbow-colored electric Prism guitar. The band then launched into the “Elegant Gypsy Suite” from Di Meola’s landmark 1977 fusion album Elegant Gypsy. Thus began the electric portion of the show, where the music really began to groove and develop some bite. Much of these songs felt more like prog rock than jazz at times, as the band ran through different sections of rapid-fire, complex rhythm changes under Di Meola’s bright, searing guitar leads. His longtime percussionist Gumbi Ortiz jumped to the forefront at this point with passionate conga playing, leading the groove with his sharp polyrhythmic hits. In building his solos, Di Meola showed professional restraint. He started out simple and thoughtful, and saved his machine-gun marvel runs up and down the fretboard till the climax, being careful to rein in his jaw-dropping virtuosity until the music called for it. With this approach, it was inspiring to witness him coax such emotional peaks from such technically complex music.

Al Di Meola by Susan J. Weiand
After a set break of crowded, polite mingling in the lobby, the second set began in recital form once again, with an acoustic piece called “Michelangelo’s 7th Child” (named for his father, Michelangelo being his grandfather’s name). This piece saw guitar and accordion weaving bright counterpoint melodies with each other, complimented by subtle rhythm accompaniment from second guitarist Peo Alfonsi. The tune was followed by some furious compositions, which saw Di Meola unleash the lightning flamenco in him, running through foreign-sounding scales like nobody’s business. With all the regional influences inherent in the music, it was impossible to try to pigeonhole the sounds this band was creating. With a Latin rhythm section and Italians on lead instruments, this band could go in any direction. At times it was a blazing Spanish/Middle Eastern tango, other times it was slinky Italian folk music, as with the tune “Umbra,” which stood out with its on-a-dime changes and fluid, ebb-and-flow ensemble playing punctuated by flourishes of guitar and accordion.

At the encore break, Di Meola took a moment to acknowledge his love for San Francisco and its attentive and enthusiastic audience. He mentioned that this year was the thirtieth anniversary of the recording of his landmark Friday Night in San Francisco album, a massively popular collaboration with Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin that “played a huge role in spreading the popularity of acoustic music,” in his own words. The band then broke out the surprise of the night: an immaculate instrumental reading of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Di Meola played electric for this one, and the intonation on his melodic variations was pure, crystalline beauty, peppered with harmonics for good measure. The accordion phrasing was lush, and the band was amazingly sympathetic to every nuance of every note. It was an instant highlight of the night. This was followed by the instantly recognizable first track to Friday Night in SF, Di Meola’s well-known acoustic composition “Mediterranean Sundance.” If I had to play one song to introduce a friend to Al Di Meola, this would be the one. The tune is Di Meola in a nutshell, at his most energetic. It’s pure gypsy flamenco, and a perfect showcase for his scintillating fretwork. His clean, rapid leads peaked the tune out right, and put the cherry atop a pure, refreshing night of flawlessly executed melodic precision.

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