For anyone with any idea what they’re listening to, there should be no question that Al Di Meola is a first ballot Mount Rushmore-of-Guitarists Honoree. The Jersey City-bred musician broke onto the scene when Chick Corea tapped the 19-year-old for his Return To Forever jazz fusion outfit in 1974 — and his comet lit up the charts from there on out. More than 30 albums, including multiple gold certifications, a Grammy Award and induction into the International Guitar Hall of Fame and a slew of other poll-topping recognition over the years line his resume, and despite all that, true happiness eluded him until this phase in his life, thanks to his second wife and infant daughter. Here, Di Meola catches up on his latest album Opus (earMUSIC records, 2018), his new Beatles tribute tour, and rediscovering his Italian roots…
French Davis: I listened to Opus — it was really just super lush. The melodies, the rhythms, the intricacy and lyricism of those and the harmonies were so uplifting. Talk to me a little bit about the germination of that album and the way you approached your composition.
Al Di Meola: Well, I started a new family. I had just gotten remarried, and it was just a wonderful, beautiful time — a rebirth of life. And I had never really written music in and around anyone. But I had my new wife and my baby in very close proximity within the same place we were staying when I was writing. And it worked out beautifully. It was just a lot of contentment in life at that point. And I would say I have to credit probably a lot of that to feeling very secure and good as opposed to being highly miserable most of the time when I wrote every other record. Because writing in itself can be a very frustrating and … Soul searching and trying not to repeat yourself and then an add on top of that if other sections of your life aren’t going well, it’s just difficult to focus. But I’ve done it and I’ve done it in such a way over the years where I’m actually happy with my end results. So I was really worried if I’d be able to actually write music in a happy mode. A lot of artists suffer and get great work. And here I find myself for the first time in my life not suffering like I used to and worried that, oh shit, I might not be able to write like this. So if there’s anything that sounds different to anyone, it’s just the result of just a good vibe that was happening around me. And then the obvious evolution of how I’ve grown as a composer. Because I really put more emphasis on the composition and the depth of the compositions, and what it has to say in terms of a story, as opposed to velocity and fireworks, which were really the thing of its day back in the heyday of the fusion era.
FD: Why the name Opus?
AD: Well, if you look at the definition of the word, it just really kinda relates to compositions. Composition in a classical way. And I think there was a lot of classical-ness of a lot of these compositions with the periodic inflections of Latin swing, but I would say it’s becoming more and more compositional and less emphasis on extended long solos.. In jazz, it’s just the emphasis is really on that moment when you solo. And it got to a point where what was influencing me was not so much how great players play, but it’s more so the composition that touches my heart. So I let that influence me as time went on. And it always was an influence. I mean it goes back to even the Beatles.
FD: Listening to you talk, for some reason, Sketches of Spain popped in my head as like that. Composition and arrangement trumping improvisation…
AD: Yeah, when you have Sketches of Spain and then you think, okay, well what makes it special? It’s not so much soloing but the actual melody.
FD: Yeah. You mentioned the Latin rhythms and the Latin swing. I read your interview with Downbeat Magazine (Bill Milkowski, “Q&A with Al Di Meola: In a Good Place,” April 12, 2018) and I really got into that anecdote about your visit to where your family’s from… And I was wondering if that also kind of found its way into your composition process and how that might’ve influenced where you’ve been heading?
AD: Well, I was so moved by it and if I’m moved emotionally, or let’s say something is very, very deep in terms of touching me, somehow it’ll make it to a title. Just like my little baby at the time, Ava, got a song. Things that are important. And that was an important milestone — to have this dream of visiting where the Di Meolas originated from. So here I had this dream and it was my new wife, who’s just amazing at making things happen. So she somehow connected with some of the town council people in this village called Cerreto Sannita, which is in the province in southern Italy called Campania, which also has a city, the largest city being Napoli, second largest being Benevento. So it was right outside of Benevento, sort of in the center, south. And then she said, “Look, the day after our show in Napoli, these people from Cerreto are going to pick us up, take us to the village where your grandfather grew up and show us the house that he lived in and then the place he left to come to America to start a new life.” I said, “Man, that would be a mindblower. Wow.” But then when I got there, the streets were lined on both sides with people with banners and signs that said, “Welcome home, Al!” and just like the most unbelievable turnout with police holding them back. Kind of like what the Stones would get but on a much smaller dimension. It was so touching. I said, “What is that? What is that? For me? What? That can’t be for me. What?” And it was for me. Because they’ve known of me and they’ve known of what I’ve done for 40-years-plus, and were proud of it. And they knew that the name was something that was known throughout the world and they had a yearning to someday meet me. And now here I was. It was like, “holy Christ!” So the town council people, mayor and everything, they just put me on a pedestal. They took me to the city chambers where they hold meetings and they had to vote me in as honorary citizen. And it was like a big deal for them. And for me, I was emotional. It was really a big deal. So then, then they had this big lunch, I mean with a table like the last supper. The most unbelievable food that … And I’m not just saying that because it’s Italy, but it really was unbelievable. And I felt like I was in the Godfather movie like, Like Godfather 2 when he…
FD: Goes back to Corleone.
AD: Yeah, it was like that in a sense. And then… we took the tour through the streets and I got to see my grandfather’s home where he lived. We took pictures in front of the door that he left to come to the states, which was very symbolic for us. And that wound up on the back cover of Opus… And then above all of the Di Meolas who lived in the village, which is probably half the inhabitants of the village, they had the Di Meola code of honor, which became the front cover. It was the name code. So every family name has certain code or shield. And that that was the Di Meola one. And so my wife took a picture of it and it became the cover.
FD: What an amazing experience. Okay. So let’s shift a bit to the Beatles tour. What made you feel like it was time to revisit the Beatles? It’s been what, six years since All Your Life (Inakustik Records, 2013)?
AD: It was another one of the greatest experiences ever. And that was during my transition from one relationship to a new one. It was right before I met my new wife and it was kind of like the thing that saved me during the tremendous stress somebody goes through when they go through a divorce. And it really did kind of save me because … I needed an outlet to keep my sanity. So the idea of recording Beatles stuff was always on my mind, and do it in such a way that is somewhat unique and had my influence in it with retaining the aesthetic beauty of their music, which was amazing in its simplicity. So I recorded three songs, then I thought I’d finish the rest over here in the states, but I decided that the sound just wasn’t up to par — even in New York City in one of the best studios there — it wasn’t as on the same level as Abbey Road. So I said, “Well, I guess I got to go back.” So I finished the rest of the record at Abbey Road, and I had recorded it in a very simplistic way where I avoided the temptation of adding keyboards and bass and drums and all of the things that could have made a big production because we didn’t have a month or two and a generous record budget. Those days are over for everybody. So when I did go back, I went back and finished it in the same fashion that I had done the first three. But in between, and before I’d gone back, I rented a house out in the Hampton’s because I wanted to get away and just really kind of experience a place that I’ve always wanted to go. I went out there, and of all of the millions houses in the vast land that’s out there, how do I wind end up with a house next to Paul McCartney? How is that even possible? And not only do I get the house next to McCartney, but he’s there. So here I am arranging “Penny Lane” and these other pieces on the porch, watching him drive in and out of his driveway. And of course we talked on several occasions. And it was just amazing. Just amazing. It’s like I was dreaming this. I still sometimes think, “Did this really happen?” Although I did go back, I did go back a year later, and at the same time, he’s always there, by the way, at the end of August. And he was there again. We talked again. And this time I had a finished record, but I was too embarrassed to go next door and hand it to him. Because people hand me CDs all the time, and it’s like, “Oh, no, here’s another CD.” So my wife said, “Well, here’s what you do this time. Write him a letter. Just write him a letter, stick it in the CD, and I’ll take it next door.” I said, “Really?” I said, “I’m going to marry this girl.” She’s the best. So she went over there with the CD, we saw him come up the driveway, she ran up to the door, and the housekeeper took the CD. So we don’t know if he got it or heard it, but he knows who I am and all of that kind of stuff. It was just a gas to say that he was my next door neighbor for a short period.