If you’ve read some of the stuff I wrote on this blog in the last year and a half, you know that The Music and Myth is not just about reviews or interviews or even crazy stories; it’s about the essence of music, about the nature of this wonderful art form and the intense passion it awakens in people. I think there are few people in the world more qualified to talk about the essence, the nature and the passion of music than composer and guitar legend Al Di Meola. The following article features an in-depth interview with this accomplished musician, a review of his concert held on November 6th at the Timisoara Philharmonic as part of his Beatles and More tour and, because it is The Music and Myth, the ever-present crazy story that lead to me getting this interview. I tried to keep the interview (almost) verbatim, with as little editing as possible in order to keep the original character and flow of the conversation. Join me as I sit down with one of the most complex musical minds of the modern era as he discusses the creative process behind his new record, the impact of computers and cell-phones on the recording process, accidentally becoming Paul McCartney’s next-door-neighbor in the Hamptons and much more.
The article is dedicated to my friend and guitar-genius Paul Kogut who went above and beyond the call of duty to help me land this one-on-one. Thank you Paul!
Now, on to the story:
Chapter 1: Just act natural!
“Just act natural,” I said to my father-in-law, who was doubling as my photographer that evening. “We simply walk in there and look like we belong,”
After countless back-and-forth e-mails between myself and the publicist, I had finally managed to secure a thirty-minute interview with legendary Jazz composer and guitarist Al Di Meola. I couldn’t believe my luck since I’ve been a fan of Di Meola’s work for quite some time and was looking forward to getting some insight from the great man. Like every one of my musical stories, I was expecting this to be part music and part myth but I have to admit that at the back of my head, I was also sort of expecting it to be part crazy.
Chapter 2: The Crazy – “If you get the chance, cut the middle-man!”
I’ll start off with the crazy and work my way up to (or down to, depending how you look at it) the sane. We got to the philharmonic about fifteen minutes early . I was told by Di Meola’s publicist, Susie to be there at 19:00 during sound-check, that my name would be on some list and I should just ask for Di Meola’s tour manager, guitar-player Csaba Toth-Bagi. From the get-go I had the distinct impression that something wasn’t right when, upon finding the doors locked, I talked to cashier lady who looked at me as though I had just stepped straight out of a situation comedy. She asked if there shouldn’t perhaps have been somebody here waiting for me and that was the first time that question had occurred to me, though it sounded entirely logical.
But “Oh, well” ”, I thought, “I’ll just show myself in”. After the nice lady pointed us in the direction of a side-entrance that was very much open, we simply walked in, acted natural, looked like we belonged and asked for Mr. Di Meola.
“Name’s Andrei Cherascu, from The Music and Myth,” I said, “Mr Toth-Bagi is expecting me. I’m on the list,” I added, like an idiot.
“I’ll talk to Csaba”, said a member of the staff, “but I gotta tell you, Mr. Di Meola’s not here.”
“Not a problem,” I thought, “There’s enough time. Just point me in the direction and I’ll interview him wherever.”
You can guess what happened next:
Another staff member came out and informed us that the interview will not be possible at that time. I should come back at eight-thirty but I’d only get five minutes. He might have said something else too but I couldn’t hear him over the sound of a huge bubble bursting, a sound that no amplifiers in the world could drown out. I was dumbfounded.
“But…I talked to Susie,” I barely managed to express coherently.
“Yeah, I know Susie,” said the staff member.
I’m happy for you, I thought but instead I said “What the hell happened? I have an e-mail saying I should be here at seven. Susie told me to be here at seven! I pronounced the name Susie as though it carried within it the life force of every single person that has ever been part of Di Meola’s staff since the days of Land of the Midnight Sun.
The guy just nonchalantly shrugged. “Well, Csaba said no! Only at eight thirty and only for five minutes!”
“That’s disappointing,” I said calmly, which sounded completely stupid because it was the understatement of a lifetime. I was frustrated as hell. I wished the tour manager would have taken just two minutes to come out and inform me of this himself so that I may tell him how much time and effort he could have spared me if he had just refused the interview from the start instead of letting me research and prepare for a thirty minute interview with one of my musical heroes for an entire week. I would have also told him that the only reason I even run The Music and Myth is out of pure love for music, that I gain nothing from this website except the satisfaction that I get to write about and help promote the music that I love. I stormed out the building thinking of all the time, energy and, I’m not ashamed to admit, childlike enthusiasm I had put into this. I decided that I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
“Let’s take a walk to Hotel Timisoara,” I said to Octi, my father-in-law, knowing from previous experience that it was the place where the staff of the Plai music festival were housing the musicians. “Screw the staff and the tour manager and their lousy five minutes!” I decided.
I walked straight to the front desk and asked them to call Mr. Di Meola’s room. The legendary musician immediately picked up and I was lucky because he proved to be the most amiable and professional man imaginable. I told him who I was and that I had a half-hour interview scheduled. I asked him if he would he be so kind as to grant it to me right then and there.
“I can’t right now, let’s do it after the show…see me after I’m done signing autographs,” said a friendly Di Meola.
“Will do, sir!” I said and hung up, having learned a valuable lesson in journalism:
If you get the chance, cut the middle-man!
Chapter 3: The Music – a concert review
As soon as the four musicians were on stage and the music started flowing the bad taste that was left in my mouth by the scheduling experience vanished entirely.
I had seen Di Meola live before, in 2011 when he was promoting The Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody so I knew to expect nothing less than complete dedication and breathtaking virtuosity. From the interviews I had read I knew that Di Meola has the reputation of being a very demanding bandleader but, as a man who has now heard him perform twice, I know that he is a man who demands excellence first and foremost of himself. Like a true bandleader (or any leader for that matter) Di Meola guides by example and the way in which he uses his amazing speed and dexterity while never once sacrificing melody is nothing short of incredible.
Also, there was never a second in which the band, consisting of Fausto Beccalossi on accordion, Peter Kaszas on drums and percussion and Peo Alfonsi on second guitar did not seem completely relaxed around each other, their chemistry an integral part of the audience’s emotional involvement. Speaking of the band, I have to commend the incredible talent of every single one of the band members, their coherence a testament to Di Meola’s skill in choosing musicians who have the ability to feed off of each other’s talent with such remarkable ease. I especially enjoyed Beccalossi’s expressive delivery, the man plays with his entire being and his entertaining facial expressions and movements really helped get the listener that much more intimately involved in his sound. I’ve found that at a live performance you truly don’t just listen with your ears.
The charismatic DiMeola proved as easy-going and funny as ever, very straightforward when connecting with the crowd, cracking jokes here and there to keep everyone in a good mood and his stage presence never had the rehearsed formulaic (if understandable) tone of other musicians. I have been a fan of Al Di Meola – the musician – for a few years now but I distinctly remember the exact moment I’ve become a fan of Al Di Meola – the person. It was at his show in 2011 when, after finishing a track, he announced in the most deadpan manner: “I will now play a song by Lady GaGa. But you probably won’t recognize it ‘cos I changed it a lot. Seriously…a lot!”
The joke was made all the more funny by my awareness of Di Meola’s very vocal dislike of the contemporary pop-scene, but more on that in the interview. The point is that when the celebrated guitarist interacts with the crowd you feel as though he is really communicating with you and not just going through the motions. I think that contributed to the great ambiance not to mention the standing ovation he received at the end almost as much as the band’s extraordinary set.
Speaking of the set, it consisted of three parts: original compositions, music by Argentinean tango legend Astor Piazzolla and tracks from the new record, All Your Life that features covers of Beatles songs, a record I will be reviewing shortly. I admit that I am not the biggest fan of the Beatles, I could never really get into their music like other people did but I was never worried that I might not enjoy the set because it’s been my experience that everything Di Meola touches turns to gold. Even the seemingly out of place pop record Cosmopolitan Life, a collaboration with Russian singer Leonid Agutin (who really should have let someone else write his lyrics) was made decent by the presence of the talented guitarist.
Needless to say, the crowd was ecstatic with the complex physically demanding performance that made me at the same time relive his 2011 show but also realize the evolution of the band throughout the years. The music sounds more ripe and well-balanced with every passing year, on the records and the stage respectively. The set closed with the obligatory rendition of perennial crowd pleaser “Mediterranean Sundance”. After a well-deserved standing ovation the crowd went home happy.
Well, everyone else went home…I still had an interview to conduct.
Chapter 4: The Myth (The Interview) – “no shortage of great players but a major shortage of good music”
Di Meola was prepared to sign another autograph when I extend my hand and he seemed surprised to find it not holding another record or ticket for him to inscribe. He shook my hand as I introduced myself and told him I was the guy he spoke to on the phone at the hotel. His tour manager, who was standing right next to him, asked me where I’d been.
“You were supposed to be here at eight thirty,” he said.
“No, I was supposed to be here at seven for my thirty minute interview,” I snapped, still irked about the whole scheduling adventure.
“It’s ok, we spoke at the hotel,” Di Meola clarified as the tour manager looked at me with an expression that made me glad looks couldn’t kill. I turned back to Di Meola.
“Yeah, sorry about that, but I have been promised a half-hour interview,” I said.
“It’s ok, happens all the time,” he answered, relaxed and somewhat amused.
He then took me to a small room in the back, a place that had the wonderfully chaotic charm of “backstage-after-a-show” with people running around left and right while food, beer and coffee rested untouched on the tables. Di Meola, very warm and friendly, asked me if I’d like anything to eat or drink so I took a beer while he asked someone to get him a cup of coffee. I could see by his demeanor that he was incredibly tired which was understandable after such a physically and no doubt mentally demanding performance.
“I won’t take up much of your time,” I assured him as we sat down o talk.
I want to clarify something right from the start: I’ve noticed on some forums and in some interviews that people suggested Al Di Meola has the reputation of being a bit aggressive and too outspoken in interviews. I read somewhere that he comes off as arrogant. I think that statement is completely unfair and ridiculous. He comes off as straightforward as well as extremely intelligent and level-headed. What he is, is honest. He won’t tip-toe around a topic, won’t use double-talk or sugar-coat a statement. He doesn’t employ that ridiculous restrained and entirely fabricated modesty that all too many musicians use for fear of speaking their mind and then being misquoted. Instead, he will tell you things exactly as he perceives them, he will say whatever is on his mind and will be straightforward about it, a quality any serious journalist should appreciate.
As for being arrogant: whoever came up with that suffers from a very childish misconception. He is not arrogant but proud, and rightfully so. He is aware of who he is and what he represents to the music industry today and he is proud of his numerous outstanding accomplishments. He doesn’t hide behind the all-too-familiar false modesty that characterizes many people in his position. I will repeat: he is honest, a quality that I hold in the highest regard.
Ok, on to the interview. I started off with the somewhat obligatory opening question:
“Mr Di Meola, this is your third time performing in Timisoara, what keeps bringing you back?”
“Well, I love the landscape, the buildings and history. You have wonderful promoters that we love coming back to see every now and then, and the audience has always been great here and very appreciative of the music. I also know where Ceausescu hid a lot of his money, so every time I come back here I take a little bit,” he jokes.
“Are you familiar with any Romanian musicians?” I ask him, thinking specifically of my favorite Romanian guitar player Horea Crisovan, whose show I recently attended. When he admits that he can’t think of any off the bat I mention Horea by name.
“Was he at the show?” he asks.
“I like to believe that he was,”
“Is he great?”
I tell him that, yes, he is great.
He asks someone if he can get some cream for his coffee and, noticing that I went silent, tells me to just keep firing away.
“Alright, let’s talk a bit about your new record. Obviously, it’s a tribute to the Beatles who I know you’ve always been a fan of. Is it easier to cover an already existing song or to write a song from scratch?”
“It’s way harder to write new music, something original, something that’s complex. It’s a lot more evolved and far more difficult to come up with original music. Each time you write for a record you’re challenging yourself to come up with something different which is very hard to do. It’s the same challenge pop people have, pop music, ‘cos everything’s been done already. I mean everything is just a variation, slightly, or it sounds like something that’s been done before. I think we’re a little bit more fortunate in instrumental music but it depends on the level of virtuosity in the player. If you have a lot of technique you can write interesting things, if you have lesser technique you cannot.
It’s what you hear in your head. If you hear it in your head but you can’t execute it that means your technique is not up to par so I think that really good technique is important. A lot of great classical virtuosos, they have a lot of technique but for some reason they don’t compose. I was composing since I was a teenager so I’m able to do things with rhythm and utilize my technique to write something that is far more interesting than a simple pop song.
What I did [with All Your Life] is I went all the way left and I did this record which is a tribute to Lennon and McCartney who, as you know, were really good pop songsters. They put together really clever and interesting pop music that, for me, had a beautiful aesthetic to it. That music is all great to me and not all pop music is but for some reason they had something magical and they were a good part of the reason why I got into music when I was a kid, just like a lot of us in the same generation, who play guitar.
The amazing thing about the Beatles and Lennon and McCartney in particular was the fact that we loved it then and we still love it now whereas the generation today, whatever music they’re growing up with, for sure they’re not going to like it later on in their life. It just doesn’t have the same quality that a lot of this music that was coming out of the 60s had. Some of the way in which I arranged this music was as hard as anything I’ve ever played before. But to answer your question: writing the music that’s mine, the music that we perform tonight, is far harder than taking something from the Beatles or Piazzolla and adapting it to my style, because I’m basically reading music that’s already been written and then adapting it to my rhythmic focus. Even though it poses challenges that still is probably a third as much work as it is to compose something new because I write everything out and have a lot of counterpoint in my music.
“So you never felt the pressure of the fact that these are basically classic tunes that everybody is already acquainted with?”
“No, I never felt that because the Beatles were as important as everything else, you know. Piazzolla was important, Jimi Hendrix, was important in his way, the Beatles, Astor Piazzolla it’s all good stuff. Even Led Zeppelin’s early music, the first couple of albums, were really cool so there’s a period in which certain artists may have had a big effect on you so if you’re still able to listen to that music today and say ‘wow, that was really great’ like Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road or ‘The White Album’, they’re just phenomenal records. Now, I was not a big fan of their individual work after they broke up so they had a certain pocket of time that will always be incredibly phenomenal and historic.
The experience with recording my tribute to them at Abbey Road Studios was definitely a highlight in my whole career, it was phenomenal and because I did it I’m able to do an interview with you and other people and have far more to talk about because it was so great, so cool. Now, if I had done another record like my last group records Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody or Consequence of Chaos or Flesh on Flesh it’s just…I find it hard to talk about the music because it’s my music, I’ve written it what am I going to talk about?
But there’s a lot to talk about after the experience of going to Abbey Road, what that meant. During the course of arranging the music I rented a house in the Hamptons. I had no idea where I was going but it turns out that McCartney was my next-door-neighbor, I had no idea. And that was the most incredible surreal experience I had in my life. That was when I only had a few songs written in 2012 and then I finished it in February 2013 and I said ‘I gotta try to rent that house again!’ which I did and then I was able to give him the final record and talk to him a few times but it’s beyond a dream. So there’s a lot to talk about.
“Did you ever get any feedback from any of the Beatles?”
“Well, I never got feedback from him. I did get feedback from, believe it or not, his managers. When I was in London at the studio at Abbey Road they came over and heard some of it and loved it. And I know eventually Paul will get around to hearing it but this has got to be the busiest guy on the planet. The most famous, the richest, everything. But for a guy who’s that popular and wealthy and great he acts quite…he want to be just a normal guy. He had no security, no gate at the front of his driveway. My driveway and his were touching one another. There were no cameras, he drove an old Ford Bronco, it’s fantastic.”
“A down to earth guy,”
“Well, as down to earth as you can possibly be because, you know, you can’t take advantage of somebody like that. He won’t take a picture with you if he doesn’t know who you are. Otherwise everybody is going to be taking advantage of him. But generally he is approachable and personable. I think it’s the same way I am. I’m pretty approachable and personable because the impression if you’re not that way, is the worst. People will always remember that moment.
“Well, I did call you in your hotel-room, you could have told me to go f**k myself but instead you were really nice and agreed to give me this interview,”
“Well, you know, it’s always hard [to give an interview] before a show. I always tell [the team] it has to be after when I’m relaxed. But if I’m rushed before the show it’s not a good time.”
“I’m currently working on a science fiction novel so I want to ask you a question that is in that spirit: Let’s say you were traveling back in time to the day when a nineteen year-old guitar prodigy named Al Di Meola got the call to be in his favorite band in the world, Return to Forever. If you had the opportunity to speak with your younger self, what would you say?” (I expected him to be caught off-guard by my question but he never missed a beat)
“Well, you have the chance of a lifetime, you will sink or swim. There was a point in which I thought I was going to sink and I have to give credit where credit’s due. I went to Chick [Corea] and I said ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m doing the job’ and he said ‘No, you’re doing great, you’re doing phenomenal. And I didn’t know whether he was kidding or just trying to make me feel better. That told me right then that now, whether he meant it or not, I have to do the job, I really have to rise. So I practiced a lot and I took it very seriously. I didn’t go out a lot, I really wanted to grow because you’re in a situation where you’re with giants so you can grow fast or sink. And luckily [Chick] was also pushing that we should write something. And I wasn’t a writer then, none of the guys were really writers, Stanley [Clarke] had maybe a couple of songs but I think we were the first group ever, of any group, that had solo records and a group record at the same time, before anybody. I don’t think there was any group, I remember that distinctly. So when I was put into the position, at 21, to write music, I wrote for my first record and I also wrote for Return to Forever a little bit, but I still didn’t feel comfortable. First record I started to see that I might have the ability to do this because…I made a record. Then the second record I really knew I had something special as a composer. Now, 28 records later, it’s probably where I put more of my emphasis: on making interesting instrumental music.
But every now and then it was nice to do like a tribute to Piazzolla like Diabolic Inventions, a bit of solo guitar version of some of that music which was incredibly challenging and amazingly beautiful. He was a very big influence on me, he’s the biggest influence on me in this second half of my career so far…”
“Creatively, you mean…”
“Oh, man, just amazing! Because he was making complex music that touched your heart. It wasn’t just complex music that was cerebral, it also made you cry at times, it was so beautiful. And it was always filled with complexity, and never at the expense of the music being shallow, so that experience was really great. And I know the musicians are equally happy doing my music as well as Piazzolla’s music, which they love. And Peo especially is a huge Beatles fan. The other guys were not initially. Some of them didn’t actually grow up with the Beatles so it was a different effect and they’ve come to love it. But Peo and I are fanatics and a lot of us who grew up with The Beatles were absolutely crazy for them. And it’s great to hold on to that childhood dream, that childhood feeling. Going to Abbey Road was really like being a five year old and going to Disney World. That excitement I haven’t felt since I was a kid. So this record made it really interesting to do interviews because it’s so different, you know. Now with my next record I go back to making very very complex guitar music, you know (laughs) Which I have a lot of.”
“You’ve released so many records throughout your career, do you have a favorite? One that’s a bit closer to your heart than the others?”
“It’s really hard because I’m really really proud of a lot of the records. It’s easier to say the ones that aren’t but I’d rather not (laughs). You know, our last group record was really…I can see the progression of intellect that went into composing and the amount of hours and dedication to get it. Sometimes I listen to the older records like that, even if it’s ten or fifteen or twenty years old and I’m actually surprised at how great it is. Because to get that kind of attention into a project today is very hard because of the cell-phone and the computer. It’s changed the way we focus. We don’t focus. We’re inundated. This generation, and even the older generation that have adapted to these cell-phones and computers are having a very hard time with the overload of networking and communication that’s taking our attention away from the instrument. If you’re a musician, or whatever other job you might have…”
“I’m a writer, so whenever I write the phone is off the hook and the cell-phone is muted,”
“Yeah, and that’s incredible discipline. Most people…most…do not have that, no way. That phone is on. Even if you turn the ringer off but you’ll see the light flash it’s a disturbance. So the older records before the computers were personal. The records had a certain focus that was unbelievable and it’s not the same anymore. You can’t get a group of musicians in a studio without them checking their phones every five seconds and not focusing on what we’re doing. And the record market has gone down, it’s over. It’s over because of the internet so in one way the live music scene is better if you have a name but the recording business is completely finished, it’s almost over.”
“I remember you were very vocal about this in some of the interviews I’ve read. How has that situation progressed throughout the years?”
“It’s gotten worse! Normally we sell a lot of CDs at the shows, that’s really the best place to sell but I’ve even noticed on this tour that there was a reducing of the amount of people because I think they’re downloading more. And I do the same. I don’t really listen to CDs as much, I download them to my phone and that’s how I listen. It’s not optimum but I travel a lot so that’s my excuse but in the U.S there’s not one CD store. It’s over.”
“That’s surprising to hear,”
“Oh yeah! It’s not the same in Europe but it’s definitely way less than it was so I hope we hold on because having a physical product is wonderful. Look at that record there!”
He pointed to a vinyl copy of his new record All Your Life that was lying on a table nearby. I picked it up to look at it and I understood exactly what he means about connecting with the physical object (a little trivia about me is I almost exclusively listen to music on CDs, I’m very old school)
“People say it’s coming back,” he continues with a half-smile “but come on it’s never going to come back like it was before but there’s a little resurgence of vinyl now which is kind of cool. But Jesus Christ, I’d have to go buy a record player again (laughs). I do like the convenience factor. But they sound better, so vinyl does sound better,”
“It has more ‘life’ to it,”
“No, no, no…it’s just…richer, it’s way better. Digital anything is thinner. And we’ve grown accustomed to digital and thinner. One of the reasons why I wanted to record at Abbey Road was that I wanted to record like the Beatles on 8-track tape.”
“One last thing I wanted to ask you. I’ve seen the Poll results of DownBeat Magazine this morning and I noticed that most of the musicians that won in any category were older generation musicians (Look for yourselves and see that Pat Metheny entered the Hall of Fame and Wayne Shorter won no less than five categories). Basically I think none of the musicians are under 40 years of age (I was wrong, sorry Trombone Shorty and anyone else I might have overlooked, but still, my point is valid) . Still, in the 1970s when you got picked to play with Return to Forever you were only 19 years old but already very capable. Would you say there is perhaps a shortage of very talented young musicians or are they just not getting enough exposure?”
“No, not at all!” he replies emphatically. “To me there is an abundance of great players. There’s no shortage of ‘em. There’s more than the world is going to get the chance to hear, that’s the problem. It’s just that you have an abundance of great players in the wrong time. Had it been an abundance of players in the right time more of them would have been heard. The only plus is the internet. People maybe can find you through the internet, people who sit around at home and live on the internet discover…lots of things, oh my God! But it doesn’t mean much in terms of really making a living which is what musicians want to do. So my opinion is there’s…if I took just Romania… I’m sure there’s great great guitar players here. Every country. There’s no shortage of this, there’s more than ever.
When I started out there wasn’t, there really wasn’t. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job had there been a lot. Now there’s just so many great guitar players without the chance to be heard. Luckily I was fortunate to have made my name in a time when those early records made a lasting impression and imprint on people’s minds, to the point where I was able to sustain a career. But had I made a bunch of lousy records after that it could have gone down. So it’s not just the ability to play great. That’s another thing: there’s no shortage of great players, there’s a major shortage of good music. A lot of these players…they’re playing, but the songs are boring. The compositions are really awful actually and that’s where the audience gets lost. The majority of my audience out there were not musicians but they have an interest in the music because there’s enough ‘ingredients’ in the ‘food’. If you have a lot of ingredients in the food it tastes good but if the only ingredients are fast runs and solos that go on forever you will lose almost everybody. So there’s no shortage of good players but, believe me when I tell you, there’s a shortage of great composition. That’s why my emphasis has been on that and I come from really good influences: the Beatles, Chick Corea, Astor Piazzolla and all Latin music, the rhythmic concepts they really influenced and shaped my ability.”
On that note we shook hands and called it an evening. I could see that he was exhausted and I appreciated the fact that he took the time to discuss these things with me so extensively. The mark of a great mind; he approached this interview with the same straightforward and open character which can be found in his music and which makes his compositions stand out as truly some of the greatest works for guitar ever written.
I hope you enjoyed it and I encourage you to comment on the topics discussed and let me know your opinions about the music and myth of Al Di Meola.
Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.