Pilgrims Tale

With just a guitar, the odd overdub and a string quartet for company, the jazz/fusion great reasserts his lifelong passion for the music of the Beatles with a 14-song testimonial. Interview by Pete Langman.

A failing dictaphone in a noisy dressing room at London’s Ronnie Scott’s and a wayward internet connection from a hotel in the Ukraine are not the best advertisement for the wonders of modern technology, but it seems apt considering that Al Di Meola’s latest project, All Your Life: A Tribute To The Beatles, was recorded entirely analogue at Abbey Road studios. It’s the kind of move that could appear gratuitous, frivolous even, the whim of a famous musician with record company dollars to spend – but in Di Meola’s case this couldn’t be further from the truth. Having ‘dreamt my whole life to go to Abbey Road as a tourist, just to see the studio, take a picture’, he hired it to kickstart a project he’d been wanting to do for several years, recording Blackbird, Because and If I Fell.

As anyone would, Di Meola revelled in the nostalgia of finding himself in that hallowed space. ‘Seeing all three rooms, exactly as when the Beatles were there, same floors, same walls, same microphones… I felt like a five year old going to Disney World for the first time.’ He then returned to the US intent on finishing the project, but that didn’t work. ‘We couldn’t come close to the sound quality we had at Abbey Road, not even near it, even though we used a small amount of tracks, analogue, same configuration,’ he admits. ‘There wasn’t any comparison. Everything they say about Abbey Road being the greatest studio in the world is true.’

If this all sounds as if Di Meola was on some kind of a pilgrimage, that’s not too far from the truth. ‘For me, the Beatles’ music is basically highly sacred,’ he ponders. ‘It was while I was alone in Prague on a mid-tour break, going through a difficult period in my life, that it dawned on me that it might be a good time to start.’ The guitarist rented a house in the Hamptons to work on the arrangements – and his neighbour just happened to be Paul McCartney. ‘I still can’t get over it, it was a dream come true to meet him,’ Di Meola says. ‘I’m not so sure that he grasped who I was, because I kind of stopped him when he was pulling out of the driveway and he was by himself, so it wasn’t like there was somebody there to say “Paul, this is Al Di Meola… you know, the guitarist Al Di Meola!?”’

The Beatles are perhaps not the most obvious of influences on the man who, at the age of 19, was plucked out of Berklee College Of Music to replace Bill Conners in Chick Corea’s fusion powerhouse Return To Forever. ‘That was maybe the best electric guitar chair anyone could have, probably the most interesting music being written for electric guitar at that time… but, you know, a lot of us took up music and the guitar itself because of the Beatles. Records like Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Abbey Road – they were as remarkable then as they are today. I mean, how can you not like – or love, even – the Beatles? If I go back and listen to Sergeant Pepper’s, it’s mind-blowing, nothing less than incredible. I haven’t heard anything from any new band that can compete.’

After a series of searing solo LPs including Casino and Elegant Gypsy, the latter of which led to him touring Germany like a major rock star, Di Meola became established as one of the big electric guitarists of the ’70s. Then, in 1980, he turned sharp left. ‘The record company was upset that I was going acoustic with this guy named Paco. They had no clue who he was… they thought I was nuts! They saw me as the “next big thing” and thought things were going great, but I said, “Well, this is going to be pretty damn great as well, so you’ll just have to see.” And you know what? The thing sold five million records and is still going strong.’

The ‘thing’ was Friday Night In San Francisco, a mind-boggling combination of Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia. ‘It was like being thrown into the arena of giants… you had to immediately rise to the occasion. In fact you had to kick some ass sometimes, too. Oh man, it was hard, it was just plain hard. You had to be totally on your toes. It’s not quite the same when you’re the only guitarist in the group or you’re leading, you know.’ Even this album already bore the mark of the Beatles in its left/centre/right mix of the three guitars. ‘That was down to me, because of George Martin and the Beatles and how they separated things. I still love that. It evoked a kind of imagery that was so unique and powerful and big.’

Though long accepted as an influence on shredders such as Yngwie Malmsteen and John Petrucci, Di Meola has never been tempted to cross over to the harder side – and, indeed, his move to acoustic guitar was partly due to tinnitus. ‘I didn’t want to be 70 years old standing in front of two or three Marshall amps with my ears completely blown out, but having to have to do that because that’s what I’m known for.’

His 1984 meeting with the late Ástor Piazzolla, the Argentinian composer and pioneer of nuevo tango, was arguably just as important. ‘I come from the fusion world, and I had been feeling in my bones for years that all guys in the fusion movement were doing music that, if it wasn’t energetic, was definitely technical, and for the most part I hadn’t been feeling it in my heart. I was never really moved to tears because of the beauty of the music – not like with Piazzolla’s music, with his group, playing his compositions.’

Whether electric or acoustic, it may be difficult to imagine a guitarist such as Al Di Meola arranging a set of Beatles covers, but he was keen to incorporate his particular stylistic elements. ‘There’s a way of using syncopation and rhythmic elements in a manner that dignifies the song and doesn’t have the element of corniness,’ he points out. ‘For certain pieces – like, say, The Long And Winding Road – that kind of approach wouldn’t work, so we stayed close to the original, but for tunes like Penny Lane and Michelle there were things that I could do that would keep the integrity of the song intact. You know, with a jazz interpretation, you’re changing the harmony so drastically that it can completely void all the beauty of what the original piece was about. The idea here was to stay more true to the harmony and still have enough of the melody evident, and the things that happen in between are perhaps the original things that I can give to this music.’

For all his nostalgia, Al Di Meola is adamant that the days of old are gone forever. ‘There are a lot of older recordings you listen to and you go, “Man!” The focus that people had back in the ’60s and ’70s… you can’t have that anymore. If you find yourself working with musicians in a studio, take a look around and watch everybody checking their voicemails, their texts, sending messages. Oh, my God… it’s emails up the wazoo! It’s almost to the point that if you’re going to have a band in the studio you’ve got to pretty much have them sign a contract saying leave your stuff at the hotel or at home. And you know what? Nobody will… nobody will.’ Perhaps the acoustic, analogue Al Di Meola makes more sense than ever before.

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