Jazz and rock began their courtship in the late 1960s. For a while, it seemed like they would never get together. From the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, the two genres had kept their distance from one another, each professing its distaste for the other. Yet despite their initial antipathy, despite their feelings that they had nothing in common, that they would never even be seen together, much less engage in any sort of “hook up” behavior, they eventually fell for each other, formed a union and produced a new breed of musical progeny.
By 1977, the offspring was enjoying a fiery adolescence. One of chief match-makers of the jazz and rock union, Miles Davis, was in hiatus at the time, but his acolytes were fanning out across the globe spreading the fusion seed. The 1977 version of fusion was muscular, intricate and fast. Very fast. Not too many years after 1977, the new kid began to grow tired, to slow down, to get, frankly, a little sappy. The muscles sagged, some of the grit was replaced with saccharine. The rough edges were filed off becoming, well, smooth.
But in 1977, the muscles, the speed, the decibels and, yes, the testosterone gushed. One of the foremost exponents of the fusion of jazz and rock in 1977 was guitarist Al Di Meola. Di Meola had recently been catapulted to fusion stardom by his stint with Return to Forever, especially the Romantic Warrior album (Columbia, 1976). RTF broke up shortly after that album and Di Meola released his first solo album soon after, Land of the Midnight Sun (Columbia, 1976). The following year, he released Elegant Gypsy (Columbia, 1977) which turned out to be one of his most successful solo albums.
Now, 38 years later, Di Meola is returning to those days by recreating most of his Elegant Gypsy album on his current tour. And so Monday night’s concert was a return to those days of guts and speed. Actually, it would be an oversimplification to describe Di Meola’s music, even the late ‘70s version as all flash and velocity. To begin with, his Elegant Gypsy era music was more than a simple wedding of rock and jazz. He also incorporated significant Latin rhythms and textures. (A ménage a trois?)
Monday’s concert captured the intensity, the ferocity, the virtuosity of those heady days of the late ‘70s. Di Meola walked on stage wearing his Les Paul guitar and didn’t take if off all evening. Although Elegant Gypsy and some of the other albums of that era featured at least one acoustic tune, usually a duet with Spanish guitar master Paco De Lucia, Monday night’s show was all electric. Di Meola has an acoustic tour scheduled for later this year in Europe, so perhaps he’s compartmentalizing his shows. Even though he was focusing on his guitar hero days, Di Meola nonetheless demonstrated more than a single speed. He certainly put the hammer down on many occasions, but he was also, at times, relaxed, reflective, contemplative and melodic.
Although the evening was primarily focused on the past, Di Meola offered a glimpse of the future with his new violinist, Evan Garr. Di Meola told the story of how the young Garr showed up, unannounced, backstage at a gig less than a year ago. Garr had his violin and asked if he could play for Di Meola. He said sure, not knowing exactly what to expect. Garr then played “Race With the Devil on Spanish Highway” (from Elegant Gypsy appropriately enough) note for note. The next night, Garr was on stage with the band.
Monday night, Garr played about two-thirds of the show, sitting out a tune or two here and there. He had two different types of electric violins which produced sounds eerily similar to Jean Luc Ponty. But it wasn’t just the tonal quality of his playing that channeled Ponty, he had the chops and technique as well. He stayed right with Di Meola on unison lightning fast runs. But the most exciting times were when he and Di Meola traded licks. That’s a long-time jazz tradition, sometimes known as a “cutting contest.” Here, the new kid had something to prove. Di Meola had something to keep up with. For fans of virtuoso playing, these segments of the concert were something special. Indeed, toward the end of the show, Di Meola commented, “Jean Luc Ponty, watch out.”
Not surprisingly, the rest of the band was equally talented, following Di Meola through the intricate arrangements, sometimes quirky time signatures and complex rhythms. Keyboard player Philippe Saisse is a veteran of Di Meola’s bands, having played with him on some of the Classic Columbia recordings in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He doubled on marimba which provided an earthy contrast to the electricity generated by the rest of the band. Gumbi Ortiz on percussion is another long-time Di Meola crony, going back even further than Saisse. He spent much of his time on the congas and coloring the proceedings with the Latin tinge. Bass player Elias Tona and drummer Luis Alicea were spot on all night keeping the fusion drive tight and on the rails consistently.
Back in the vinyl days of the ‘70s, albums were less than 40 minutes long, so a 90 minute concert demands more material than a single album can supply. Di Meola dipped into some of his other albums of the era including Casino from which he extracted “Dark Eyed Tango.” He explained that much of the music for both Elegant Gypsy and Casino was composed around the same time. And, listening to the two albums today, it’s apparent they could have easily been released as one double album. (Probably not as lucrative for artist and label, however.) He pulled “One Night Last June” from Kiss My Axe (Tomato, 1991) He also threw in a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” with Di Meola playing the Jimmy Page guitar part and Garr playing the Robert Plant vocal part on the violin. Brilliant! Besides the obvious elements of jazz, rock and Latin, Di Meola at times sounded a bit like a hopped up Baroque musician. That’s another influence he’s dabbled with over the years. His first solo album, Land of the Midnight Sun even featured a selection entitled, “Sarabande fromViolin Sonata in B Major” by J. S. Bach.
Di Meola was in a good mood, and he should have been: he had just taken the fusion concept to a new level by getting married the day before while the band was in Las Vegas for a show. There must be a story behind that, but unfortunately, we didn’t hear the details.
- Al Di Meola, guitar
- Philippe Saisse – keyboards, marimba
- Gumbi Ortiz – percussion
- Elias Tona – bass
- Luis Alicea – drums
- Evan Garr – violin