Guitar Gods: a term synonymous with high volume six string shredders within the heavy metal and hard rock genre. Legendary axe slingers such as; Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Eddie Van Halen and Tommy Imoni has crafted some of the most memorable power chord fueled songs all time. Their influence is so widespread that they have, by and large, established the ideal standard for guitar playing and technique. Al Di Meola is a Guitar God that’s not mentioned nearly as much as the aforementioned names above. Unless you’re a guitar enthusiast or a serious follower of jazz fusion, Al Di Meola will fall under the tried and tested term of being one of music’s best kept secrets. Unlike the more popular guitar heroes who has a strong blues foundation in their technique and an amplifier to accentuate the impact of their sound, Al Di Meola’s style is more articulate with an emphasis on adventure, speed and warm acoustics that feel more appropriate for a kiss under the Eiffel Tower than a large arena with hundreds of thousands of people. Power chord shredders has monopolized the style and tone of the guitar so deeply that very little attention is given tothe art of the instrument. Al Di Meola has never appeared to be as interested in simplifying his sound as much as he is in exploring the dimensions of the guitar. While he does have his share of electric pieces, Al’s sound seem to come from a deeply expressive place where he allows you in his soul without the demands that comes with the unapologetic insistence of hard rock or heavy metal
Al Di Meola first big break came when he was attending Berklee College in Massachusetts; when the leader of Return to Forever, Chick Corea, approached him about being the designated guitarist for the group. Return to Forever was a classic jazz fusion group who recorded high-volumed jazz-rock pieces. Al Di Meola, already being a fan of the group, took full advantage of his tenure with the band as he lent his dexterous chops to classic albums like “Where Have I Known You Before”, “No Mystery” and “Romantic Warrior”. Even among a band of established jazz greats like Stanley Clarke (Bass), Lenny White (Drums) and Chick Corea himself (Piano, Keyboards and Synthesizers), Meola’s style stood out for its lightning fast speed and range-which wasn’t common at the time. Jazz purists will have some reservations about the following analogy; but one of the key reasons behind RTF rise to grace during the mid- 70’s was largely due to Al Di Meola’s musical presence. His bandmates may’ve been more polished and accomplished musicians, but Meola’s charismatically detailed guitar lines was the catalyst that gave the band’s sound a cutting edge appeal that attracted a young audience- which was something a lot of jazz bands needed at the time to stay relevant, since the jazz genre in general had fallen out of popular favor and taken a back seat to the rock and R&B music of that decade. Based on the reputation he’d earned during his stint with RTF, he could’ve easily shifted his focused towards more popular styles of rock music, while watering down his style in the process for record sales. But it was clear when released his solo debut, “Land of the Midnight Sun”, that he wanted to push his sound into a stratosphere that has never been explored by other guitar players. While his debut offers a strong promise of his capabilities, even if the album did have the shadow of the cosmic jazz-rock of RTF, on the follow-up “Elegant Gypsy”, he solidified his status as a world class six-string technician.
Elegant Gypsy greatly expanded on his style which included the acoustic aesthetics of Flamenco, muti- tracking studio techniques where you can hear polyrhythmic guitar performances at the same time, and more refined song concepts that provided a foundational ground to showcase his versatility. The opening tracks “Flight Over Rio” and “Midnight Tango” may not be the most complex compositions on this album, but it’s an ideal introduction into an amalgamation of guitar styles including; Brazilian, Latin, Flamenco or traditional hard rock. The former is a fast-paced richly arranged Brazilian styled piece with some standard latin and rock based electronic guitar performances here and there, but nothing too complex. “Midnight Tango” is probably the most accessible piece on the album with catchy guitar chords leading the way with a slowly paced instrumental that sounds exactly like a slow dance across the sands of a Caribbean beach. The heady material kicks in with the acoustic piece “Mediterranean Sundance”. Here Meola is accompanied by Paco De Lucia in which you can hear both men trading off inspired solos simultaneously while keeping it very melodic and cohesive as a whole. The chemistry between the two makes this one of the true standout moments on this album (as a disclaimer, make sure you have two speakers plugged in to know which guitarist is playing their parts. Al De Meola solos can be heard on the right end speakers and Paco De Lucia’s solos can be heard through the left end speakers). “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway” is a track where Latin jazz is turned on its head as it runs through a variety of tempos that criss-cross between frenzied rhythm arrangements and almost thrash sounding rock riffs with latin chord flourishes filtered throughout the sporadic solos. Sounds crazy? Well it is a track that kind of harkens back to the pyrotechnic jazz-rock aggression of his RTF days without the same level of loudness. After a brief acoustic interlude “Lady of Rome, Sister of Brazil”, we go into the closing track “Elegant Gypsy Suite”. This is a track where everything comes full circle as it features a taste of every guitar style you’ve heard throughout the album. While the nine plus minute suite is solid, it feels more like more like the predictability of a cumulative exam than a grand ending that closes an excellent album out with a bang. Much like a final exam that covers a piece of all of the material you’ve learned throughout the semester, it’s a track with very little surprises and you know what’s in store if you’ve heard the whole album up to that point. Even when AL Di Meola plays a slew of instruments throughout the track which includes; 6- and 12- string electric and 6-string acoustic guitars, Arp String Ensemble, acoustic piano, maracas and percussion, it just seems more like an exercise in grandstanding rather than leaving a lasting impression on the listener. I think when a musician feels the need to make to play a multiple set of instruments on one track by himself, it’s a vanity piece under the guise of art. Nevertheless, the performances are efficient enough to hold your attention. And if nothing else, it’s a solid testament to Meola’s many talents, if not his sense of emotion.
Since the musical style displayed on Elegant Gypsy set the standard for his subsequent work, it has become his signature album. It’s a highly regarded album among many guitarists for its innovative hybrids of guitar styles meshed together to forge a sound that’s distinctively Meola’s. As a further measure of its impact, the album is certified gold by the RIAA- a major feat given albums with this sort of musical depth are lucky to sell 100,000 units. The charm behind Elegant Gypsy lies in its ability to be inventive without draining your energy. The subtle approach employed in Meola’s rhythm arrangements keeps you engaged throughout since he plays his parts sporadically instead of beating listeners over the head with loud and abrasive solos. The guitar has never been my favorite instrument per se, even though there are quite a few guitar-based songs and albums I love very much, but Al Di Meola plays with so much passion and class that it gave me a greater appreciation of what can be accomplished on the six-string instrument. Anytime a guitarist can make me like acoustic pieces, it goes a long way in showing an artist power to move and persuade through the passion he brings to his songs. In regards to heavy metal and hard rock as compared to Al Di Meola’s style, you can never go wrong with a cold bottle of brew, but a glass of fine-aged wine can be just as suitable as one’s weapon of choice for leisure and relaxation. Cheers!
This is a guest review by Patrick Frierson. Patrick is an avid music lover and collector. He’s spent the past five years or so collecting nothing but the finest in vintage recordings that range from well-known classics to underground gems. Hopefully, you’ll find his reviews to be inspiring enough to make you want to groove out to some of the coolest albums ever recorded. As a rule, he doesn’t write negative reviews, so if he takes the time and effort to review a recording, he genuinely loves it. His passion ensures that he will place a great deal of care and detail into analyzing albums and sharing the info with the readers of The Penman Post. He hopes you all enjoy it as much as he enjoyed sharing his musical experience with you.