Al Di Meola: Across a Universe of Guitar

Al Di Meola could have been just another among thousands of children whom the Beatles inspired to play guitar. Instead he also studied jazz, and turned himself into a virtuoso best known for genre-crossing between electric jazz and flamenco fusion. But the Beatles’ music always remained close to his heart.

Di Meola’s most recent album, Across the Universe, is an instrumental tribute to the Fab Four, taking him back to songs he played in bands while still at school. It was this 1960s combination of Beatles and jazz influences that moulded him into the eclectic player he is.

Al Di Meola. Photos supplied.

“Wasn’t it a wonderful period?” Di Meola exclaims on the telephone. “It was just an explosion of great music, all in that one decade. I was one of those American kids who sat and watched them live on Ed Sullivan, and that one performance really changed a lot of us, and the world has been a better place because of them.”

Where many jazz musicians take liberties with the melodies when playing Beatles songs, Di Meola sought to preserve their innate charm. “There’s such an aesthetic beauty to how they performed the music,” he says, “how they sounded and how they harmonised the melodies against the chords… I totally respect and have a passion for the music, even to this day. I mean for the rest of my life they will always somehow be a part of me, and there isn’t a day that goes by in my life that I’m not somehow reminded of the Beatles. They’re all around. It could be a commercial, it could be a magazine or some melody on the radio or whatever. But they’re in our lives. Ever present.”

Di Meola’s joy in the project even saw him jumping on the drums to replicate some of Ringo’s famous licks. “I just wanted to get the thrill of doing that,” he says. Of course his own musical presence is equally unmistakable, especially when he extends his versions of some songs “like an addition on to a house”.

Di Meola points out that the especially miraculous music they made from late 1966 might never have happened had they continued touring. Instead they experimented in the studio, creating such psychedelic wonders as I Am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever. They had passed beyond that zenith in the phase covered by Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back documentary, and Di Meola found their haphazard fishing for compositional ideas in a recording studio a world away from his own methodology. “But that’s the way they did it,” he says, “and they did it great… That was their job every day, and what a wonderful thing to have an open chequebook!”

Di Meola sprang to prominence in 1974 in the third incarnation of Chick Corea’s massively popular jazz-rock group, Return to Forever. “When I went to Berklee School of Music in Boston, I imagined myself playing with Return to Forever,” he recalls. “That dream came true because I had mentioned it to a friend who had a tape that he had made of me playing, and he got it into the hands of Chick and the management, and just the timing and everything was perfect. The moon was aligned with the earth, y’know? Our first show was Carnegie Hall, so I was 19 years old playing Carnegie Hall with my favourite group.”

When the band toured Spain he sought out records by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, immersed himself in that idiom, and later played in an acclaimed acoustic guitar trio with de Lucia and John McLaughlin, eventually discarding the electric guitar altogether for some years. “I just saw that there was a great future in places like Europe, in particular, for a deeper kind of acoustic music,” Di Meola says. “Plus a lot of the old theatres in Europe were really built for acoustic instruments, not loud electric instruments. So I saw very early on that acoustic guitar could be something I could do much later on in life. I don’t have to stand there at 85 years old in front of a wall of Marshall amps, like Jeff Beck is going to have to do!”

Always drawing him back to the electric guitar is its sustain, which he says allows him to phrase more lyrically: “You can hold the note longer, and shape it and bend it. It’s more vocal-like in the way that you can manipulate the phrasing.”

That’s obviously handy for reinterpreting Beatles songs, which, on his Australian tour, will pop up in a repertoire centred on new, yet-to-be released material.