Last week I had the incredible honor of sitting down for an in-depth interview with Al Di Meola, an accomplished Jazz composer and one of the most talented guitar-players in the world. We talked about many things, but mostly, about his new record All Your Life which, in Di Meola’s own words, is “a tribute to Lennon and McCartney, who […] were great pop songsters.” When I first heard that Al Di Meola was returning to play a gig in my hometown as part of his Beatles and More tour I was intrigued since he himself is by no means a “pop songster” and his complex, technique-driven guitar compositions are a far cry from the simple, straightforward and conventionally melodic anthems by the most famous band in the world.
Still, in the interview Di Meola referred to himself as a Beatles “fanatic” and talking to him I got a palpable sense of the deep love he has for this band. It was interesting to discuss music with him from this level, to experience a world-class composer in the guise of a simple music enthusiast like myself, with favorite bands and fond memories of tunes from his youth. The whole experience made me even more interested to hear his “take” on these songs.
I did not get an opportunity to hear much of them at the concert as the set list consisted mostly of his own compositions and his renditions of songs by Astor Piazzolla. That is understandable given that most people attend his concerts to revel in his masterful technique and incredible control of the guitar while All Your Life features a more toned-down Di Meola, focused primarily on capturing the essence of these songs and then re-shaping them in his image without straying too much from the original. It was a very wise approach from a very experienced musician.
So brace yourselves, for this is not a record of Jazz fusion and lightning-fast playing, which might disappoint any fans oblivious enough to not be aware of what this album represents (the same people who still buy Mark Knopfler’s solo work expecting to hear new Dire Straits tunes).
I have to admit that I was never really a fan of The Beatles. I could appreciate the music but I never found it very stimulating, personally. There’s that saying that you’re either into The Beatles or you’re a fan of The Stones but I was never really interested in either band growing up and was, instead, listening to something else entirely. While I was never crazy about the Beatles, I have always been a fan of Al Di Meola. From the start I had confidence that this would be a magnificent work.
You can instantly tell that All Your Life is not an album of cover songs so much as it is a work of tribute and the artist is found reshaping and reinventing the popular tunes, distancing himself from the Beatles versions just enough for the tracks to stand on their own rather than carry the acoustic baggage of the originals. The versatile musician uses his technique to add depth where it otherwise might have been lacking due to the absence of lyrics. I was curious if Di Meola felt any pressure in reinventing such well-established songs and if that pressure might have leaked into the final product but the musician himself gave a very clear answer to that question in the interview.
The album starts off with “In My Life”, my personal favorite Beatles track, if only for the reason that it was introduced to me through a Johnny Cash cover. It is, however, not my favorite song on this record. The guitar is, of course, flawless and the song shines on the magnificent technique alone but I found the percussion a bit unnecessary and distracting. I feel the song would have worked better with just the guitar so I can’t help but wish he would have chosen another opening track to set the tone of the album; perhaps the second one, the absolutely brilliant “And I Love Her” (which, incidentally, makes perfect use of percussion to enhance the melody rather than distract from it). This song stands out, alongside “Eleanor Rigby” and “Because” as the best of the bunch, albeit for different reasons. “And I Love Her” creates a perfect blend of catchy melody, structural depth and flawless delivery, while ”Because” is almost unrecognizable at first and yet stays true to the ambiance of its namesake and possesses a quality about it that captures the very essence of the original. This is the quintessential cover song (or tribute song rather) and composers everywhere should take note. As for “Eleanor Rigby” this very intense piece of music remains the most faithful to the original, brilliantly recreating its tension and adding just enough of Di Meola’s characteristic sound to make it different.
I chose to highlight these three tracks because I consider them to be the best but, really, every song on the record is in its own way a musical marvel, from the playful “Michelle” to the emotional “Day in the Life” and the haunting “She’s Leaving Home”, the final track on the album. Each is a testament to the profound relationships that form between fellow artists and their works. This is a musician’s record first and foremost, created by a musician for musicians and the listeners are left to relish the complex connections that can be found only in the works of peers.
All Your Life, with its simple arrangement and its intricate delivery, is an extremely well-rounded work first and foremost because of the context of its creation. When musicians of this caliber decide to pay tribute to each other the result can be nothing but a masterpiece.