Innerviews, music without borders

Al Di Meola
Telling It Like It Is
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2003 Anil Prasad.

It’s two hours before the Al Di Meola gig at the Villa Montalvo Carriage House in Saratoga, CA and flautist Alejandro Santos has a look that could kill on his face. It’s unsurprising given that Di Meola is in the process of chewing him out during soundcheck.

“You’re drowning out the important parts — the guitar arpeggios,” he says to a clearly distraught Santos in his thick, New Jersey accent. “Control your sound with your breath. Forget the soundman!” He proceeds to start and stop the percussion-heavy rehearsal piece more than two-dozen times before he’s satisfied with Santos’ efforts.

The flautist isn’t the only recipient of pointed commentary from Di Meola today. No doubt he’s inspiring fear, and likely more than a little loathing, when he roars “Play it like a motherfucker! Play it as loud as you can play!” at drummer Ernie Adams and “You forgot the accents again!” at keyboardist Mario Parmisano.

The renowned guitarist and composer, clad in black jeans and a t-shirt, has opinions for the house staff too as he proceeds to wander around the theater. “The toms sound like cardboard,” he grumbles to no-one in particular, before turning his attention to the grand piano. “It sounds like shit! It sounds like an upright. Rip this mic out of the piano now!” he commands a sound technician. “But it’s the same mic you had in your rider,” she wearily responds. “Oh,” says a defused Di Meola as he returns to the stage for one more run through the tune before taking a break until showtime.

While Di Meola’s perfectionist tendencies may irk the members of his group World Sinfonia, they served the audience well later that evening. The band delivered a fiery, high-caliber show offering up a crowd-pleasing mix of world music-infused jazz-fusion material from his most recent CD Flesh on Flesh, as well as a cross-section of pieces from his vast back catalog.

The band was rewarded with several standing ovations from the 300 in attendance. It’s a far cry from playing stadiums in the ‘70s during his Return to Forever days, but Di Meola let himself enjoy the moment. “You are the last of the fusion audience,” he told the cheering fans as he bid farewell. “It’s a small one, but a good one.”

Di Meola’s soundcheck demeanor was nowhere in sight after the show as he manned an autograph table during a meet-and-great session. He graciously answered the most arcane of questions for over-zealous fans and entertained several kids with fun banter, impressing their parents and anyone within earshot.

While Di Meola appreciates and respects his fan base, he’s more than a little disconcerted about the difficulties involved in expanding its numbers. He points the finger squarely at the machinations of the music industry — one of many topics the outspoken musician explored in this no-holds-barred discussion.

Judging from the soundcheck, you’re a very demanding band leader.

I have to be because the music demands it. It demands that it’s played properly. Sometimes, if we get sloppy, I have to point it out right at that moment. If you let the tune go by while you’re rehearsing it, by the time you get to the end, you forget the moment where something was really wrong. So, I have to stop the tune. Sometimes I have to continually stop until I get it right. It’s frustrating. The thing is, they become better musicians in the course of them hating my guts. [laughs] They become more conscious of timing and dynamics. If I don’t point this stuff out, it’ll just be a disaster. These are not seasoned players. Our percussionist Gumbi Ortiz is, but the rest of them need a lot of guidance. I’m not going out on the road with the biggest names as sidemen. It wouldn’t be affordable to do that, so I’ve got these guys who are great to work with and are really good musicians. They’re moldable in terms of how I want my music played. That’s important.

Do you have an overall philosophy as a band leader?

Musicians must understand rhythm and syncopation in order to do this kind of music. It’s not really a philosophy, but just an understanding of the rhythmic concept I have and it sometimes needs to be drilled a lot. I think we’re getting close to it. The concept is playing off the quarter note. It’s also understanding that when you play syncopations off the quarter note that no matter how complex it may seem, the quarter note never ever sways one hair unless it’s intentionally meant to.

Generally, if we’re all playing together and one guy is feeling the quarter note in another place, it’s really apparent to me. It may not be for the listener, although I think the listener will feel something is awkward subconsciously. Understanding how to play off the quarter note without the quarter note ever moving is something that’s rare for musicians to really get. It’s not something you can really learn. You’re born with it. It’s in you and I have to get it out of them. But sometimes it’s not in them. Then you’ve got a problem.

You were particularly hard on Alejandro Santos. What were you trying to convey to him?

Alejandro is still too locked into reading the notes to really be listening. He’s just not listening. So I have to drill him. He has to listen more — really listen. He needs to get past the written music. When you get there, things turn out better because you’re more focused on the cohesion of the sound.

Describe the difference between leading a group of up-and-comers versus working with seasoned players such as Anthony Jackson and Gonzalo Rubalcaba during the making of Flesh on Flesh. 

The communication with guys like Anthony and Gonzalo is on a ten times higher level. But we gotta deal with reality. If there’s a positive about this, it’s that as a composer — which I am as a lot of the music we play is my creation — I get to mold the music exactly the way I hear it in my head. There’s an advantage to that sometimes because I realize my dream fully. These guys are willing to do whatever I like. They want to make me happy. Guys like Gonzalo and Anthony, even though the music is written out for them, they bring something to it that I might not have thought of. There’s a certain magic to that as well.

There may be a time when I can do something live with Gonzalo and Anthony. We’ve talked about the possibility of doing a group together. It’ll probably happen in Europe before the United States. You just can’t tour with them in America. It’s tricky. In America, you don’t have promoters who are savvy as to who the musicians are and what they mean. The promoters are only concerned with how many tickets they’re going to sell. So, would Anthony’s or Gonzalo’s name mean that much more to the ticket? In other words, could the fee go up three or four times to be able to afford them? The answer is flat out no. In Europe, the promoters book what they like, not what sells. Luckily, they’re dealing with some kind of funding, similar to classical music in the States. Classical music simply would not exist in the States without funding. It would be finished. That same funding is available in Europe for creative music including world music, jazz and any of their derivatives, except for rock.

Is it frustrating having people constantly refer to you as a guitarist instead of a composer?

Yeah. I don’t think a lot of those people have really focused on my last 15 records. They only remember the beginning: Elegant Gypsy, Land of the Midnight Sun, Casino and Splendido Hotel. Past that, it’s murky. But I have like 15-to-20 records that I don’t think they’ve taken the time to really focus on, particularly on the composition side. This especially holds true for the critics. Critics have completely bypassed me. But that’s just a phenomenon in the United States, not the rest of the world. There is much higher regard for me in Europe, South America, Japan and Russia. Unfortunately, in the States, you have critics who have been doing the scene for years who are more into straight ahead or traditional kinds of jazz. They routinely just slam the hell out of us who came from the fusion era. So, even if I make music they’d normally love to hear, the fact that my name’s attached to it means they already don’t want to hear it.

How have you evolved as a composer during your solo career?

I had two great teachers along the way. There was Chick Corea at the beginning. He was not only a great player when I started out with him at age 19, but I was also a big fan of his compositions. His composing style influenced me tremendously. Later, in 1985, I was introduced to Astor Piazzolla’s music. We became friends and that took my compositions to a whole other level. So, it’s really a combination of the two major influences that I knew personally. They had a direct influence on my composing, as did other peripheral musics and composers.

Do you have a process for composing?

I sometimes will watch a movie or listen to music — whatever inspires me to get something going. Then it’s a flood after that usually. I’m doing more of my writing in Miami. I have a home there on the beach. I like to isolate myself by going down there. For some reason it flows there. When I sit down, it all comes out. I think I have a system now that’s working really well. That’s why the records to me are sounding more exciting than ever.

Is it challenging to create new music after releasing 20 solo albums?

To a certain degree, yeah. There have been periods way in the past when it’s been tremendously difficult. It’s easy in the beginning because you have a lot to prove, but nothing to top. After 20 records, each new one becomes more difficult. You have to try to avoid repeating yourself too often and try to find something new to say. To overcome that, you put yourself in an environment that lets the inspiration take over. When I sit with my guitar and pen and paper, I’m not really thinking about writing like I did in the past. I’m trying to come up with stuff that’s different.

Usually, it’s like opening a faucet when I’m in Miami. I let the inspiration keep going and that’s why the songs are so long, in-depth and have counterpoints all over the place. I think there’s been an evolution in the compositional direction. It’s becoming more sophisticated. I don’t think about radio and the boring crap they play or any of that kind of stuff. I just do my thing.

To what degree does improvisation play a role in your compositional process?

There’s always a harmonic backdrop in the structure of my compositions that provides the opportunity for improvisation. Then, there are the obvious places for improvising or interpreting phrases — phrases that are written in the music that you can elaborate on. But the harmonic chord structures that make up the majority of tunes I write — or even the ones I interpret by Piazzolla or Corea or Gismonti — enable me to improvise in certain places. I think sometimes when the improvisation happens, one can’t discern if it’s written or just improvised and that’s cool. It’s a good thing.

The new record features a very modern take on Corea’s “Senor Mouse.” Why did you choose to revisit it?

We were just fooling around in the studio. It wasn’t well-intended, let me tell you. [laughs] Anthony and I were just jamming and I said “Let’s play with this really hip loop I found.” I thought it was the best 10 minutes we’ve ever played together. It just felt so good. After we jammed on it, we added piano to it and then some drums. It was the only track we layered. It’s got a real hip-hoppy-kind of loop backdrop and sounds night and day different from the original version.

Describe the conceptual contrasts between Flesh on Flesh and your other recent releases.

I knew Anthony was going to be part of the project from the outset and then I had a vision of Gonzalo stepping in. I had a feeling that I wanted horns too. I wanted to record it in Miami as opposed to New York just to get into the vibe of what’s going on down there. It’s a more upbeat scene. As a result, the record is more upbeat and energetic than other recent records. This is a band record. It sounds like a group playing. It’s different from Winter Nights, which was a quiet record and Grande Passion, which was more orchestral. And Infinite Desire was a production record.

The expansive nature of your recent output intimates that Telarc gives you quite a bit of artistic freedom.

Telarc in no way dictates or tries to manipulate the direction of the music, which is admirable. They dare not tell me to try to write something for radio. They probably secretly hate that crap too, but they’re in the business of selling records. Unlike a lot of other artists in the contemporary jazz genre, I’m one that can still sell somewhat in that environment without getting mass radio play from those easy listening bullshit stations.

In 1998, you tried to mount a campaign to get your fans to request radio play for your work. How did that go?

It absolutely did not work. Radio is not going to listen to anyone who calls in and asks to hear what I do or what they like to personally hear. Radio is going to play what the consultants tell them to play — what women in hair salons or people in malls want to hear. They take their surveys in the most asinine places and think they have a grasp on what the masses want to hear. They couldn’t be more dead wrong.

When you released Kiss My Axe in 1991, you said “The music industry was conspiring to keep me silent.” Specifically, what did you mean by that?

I got blacklisted. You can ask the person that runs radio at Telarc. She won’t say it to me, but she thinks I’ve basically created enemies with radio. She couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, when I was speaking out during concerts about radio every night, I was being complimentary. I was saying “If you like radio and you’re not hearing what you want, I encourage you to call the stations.” At the time, radio was influenced by listener requests. They took note of all that — not solely, because they also went by these consulting firms and in-depth research. But they really took into account people who called in requesting what they want to hear. So, I encouraged people to do that and it may have rubbed the stations the wrong way and now I don’t get any play. But you know what? That kind of format is so God-awful boring that none of my fans listen to it anyway. It’s such an epidemic. It’s so sick. That’s the way it is, let me tell you.

Let me give you an example. I had dinner with one of the main people at Clear Channel Broadcasting the other night. Here’s the situation. Clear Channel bought out all the promoters in the country, but they also own the majority of the radio stations that are hot. Now, here’s the promoter in Phoenix who did my show. He was bought out by Clear Channel too. But they won’t play my record because it doesn’t fit their format, however they’ll play that other kind of crap. Now, if they had played my record, the show would have been sold out. So, the argument was made “Why not play my record?” The program director says “Well, it doesn’t work for our format.” But the Clear Channel banner is up at the gig.

Knuckleheads run those companies and know zero, zip, absolutely nothing about music. They’re just going with the flow of what they think kids want to hear. The music business is no longer run by people who love music. It’s got nothing to do with that. Thank God for XM digital satellite radio though. That’s the future right there.

You recently said “People don’t care about virtuosity anymore. They care about ridiculous forms of hip-hop and people like Eminem, who are destructive and zero-talent.” It seems to me that statement is applicable to all forms of the arts these days.

Yeah, kids are growing up with bullshit. There’s no two ways about it. I’m not trying to sound like my Dad. He may not have liked the rock and roll thing when it came in, but God, I have a 13-year-old daughter who listens with her friends to that Eminem crap and stuff similar to it. They like it because of the peer pressure thing to a degree. But what if she was turned on to some of the stuff I grew up with like the Beatles? Hello? It’s, like way better.

We’re in a dangerous time. We’re in a time when bullshit sells more than ever. It’s getting a bit scary. How much bullcrap was there when I was her age? Not much in comparison. Society is really getting screwed up. It gets worse and worse. It just is. There’s a lot more anger. There’s a lot more divorce. There’s a lot more everything that seems to be negative. The business people who run the record business are using all of that as an excuse to glorify these artists — they have the audacity to call them artists. They’re not artists. They’re thugs, basically. These guys have zero talent. Nothing. Not a bit. They can’t sing. They can’t write music. They don’t play an instrument. They can’t even dance! They just have this little poetry thing going. [laughs]

Joe Zawinul put it in an interesting way. He said the net result is there are far fewer storytellers than there used to be.

That’s only part of it Joe. Joe should come out and say that basically they are glorifying zero-talents that can’t play an instrument or sing. What’s all this about? Why are kids relating to this? How come the Stevie Wonders —  who are still brilliant — are being pushed into the background? Because kids can’t relate? Well, what can’t they relate to? They can’t relate to music? This has very little to do with music. It’s about what is hot and popular. Look at Eminem. There’s no music. It’s just a kind of angry view he has put into some pseudo-poetic form. That’s it. It’s amazing. It baffles me beyond belief that this guy can sell out arenas with that kind of crap. But that’s where it’s at.

Given your perspectives on the loss of integrity in the music business, how do you justify the pop project you’re working on with the Swedish production duo Music Mike and Romy Rome?

Well, those are the stupid names that they use. The interviewer from Jazziz wanted to know what names they go by. That’s not what I call them. I think they were trying to be funny. This has nothing to do with what we were just talking about.

The Jazziz article characterized you as going after the commercial mainstream with this project.

Well, there’s music and there’s not music and sometimes there’s a thinner line than one can imagine. But this is not rap that I’m talking about. The interviewer heard two seconds of music. The article was not only unfair, it was downright mean.

Set the record straight. Describe the music in your own words.

It’s a pop, hip-hop, R&B project. That’s the way I view it. It’s cool. It’s very today. It’s very happening. There are guest vocalists on every track. I like some of the rhythms that exist in the pop world, but with music, harmony, soul, melody and some good singing attached to it. I grew up with pop music, so pop, R&B and hip-hop, if they’re done well, can be musical. There’s nothing wrong with it. So, this project is me definitely stepping into a world in which people may never have heard of me before. But, let me tell you, if my world diminishes any more, I’m over. I’m barely able to go on tour anymore because of the lack of radio and support — and I don’t mean from the record company, although these are no longer the days of getting 50 times the budget that a Telarc’s got from a Columbia or Warner Brothers. All of us in this genre are watching our sales go all the way down — straight down like a rock — because of the lack of support and the image that our music is a thing of the past. I can’t exist on 200-to-300 people a night coming to see a show. It’s an economically losing proposition. Same for Joe Zawinul. Same for Chick Corea. Same for every artist in this genre.

I see this as a way to build up an audience. I see Santana sell 30 million records and I go “Wait a minute. Why not expand a little bit if I believe in it?” First and foremost, I have to dig it. From another point of view, this can be a lot of fun. Is it me? Well, I have a lot more admiration in a way for Flesh on Flesh. I’m very proud of that record. But I also like this other record. It’s a completely different point of view. I’m also proud of it, because I’m not trying to water down what I do to get on easy listening jazz stations. I’m totally bypassing that kind of stuff. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go right down the middle. It’s either gonna be fucking humungous or it’s gonna go down the tubes. [laughs]

What’s the status of the record?

It’s about 50 percent done. We’re talking to three major labels who are fighting for it like you can’t imagine.

Will it come out under your own name?

I’m not sure. If it was my vote, I would not put it out under my name, but the guys I’m working with really think it should be my name. So, we have to see once it’s complete just how it feels and what is the right thing to do, because the record company that distributes it is going to be a major and they’re gonna want to have a big say.

What’s it like to give up the production reigns after producing your own albums for so long?

I’m proud to say that I was never able to before. Few artists can say they’ve been producing all their albums for 20 years and then say “I’m going to take a step back and allow other viewpoints to come in way more than ever before.” It’s a whole new world out there and this is a whole new approach. I’m not going to veto everyone’s viewpoints and say “No, this is the way it’s going to be. This is how I want it.” So, I’m working well with the situation. It’s turning into something that has tremendous potential. Right now, seven of the 12 songs could be hit singles.

In what radio format?

I don’t want to say because I don’t know that world. They call it R&B. I call it something else. All I know is I like it a lot and the musicians I’ve played this project for are completely knocked out. I’m talking about hardcore musicians. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how they were going to react. So, go figure. All I know is, there’s more curiosity about this than you can imagine and major labels are going crazy for it. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high, but on the other hand, we could be surprised.

With a record like Flesh on Flesh, we pretty much know it’s not going to be a huge seller and that’s a shame, because it should be. I love the record and I’m going to tell you something. The work I’m putting into the other record is like a crumb compared to the work I put into Flesh on Flesh. Flesh on Flesh is rocket science. It’s a lot harder to write, record and rehearse it properly. The other record is like a lot of pop music. There’s not a lot of effort that has to go into it to write it. But some of the simple stuff is also very beautiful. It’s just that the work and amount of time is not huge for me. I’m working with other people. It’s a team.

Stanley Clarke told Innerviews “In the very first electric Return To Forever, Al Di Meola was just a kid and he hardly even moved onstage. Man, he was afraid to turn his head to the right or left and look at anybody. He would turn his whole body with the guitar.” What do you make of that?

Yeah, that’s probably true. I was stiff. I was also initially afraid to be onstage. I mean, it was really demanding music. My attention was solely on that. I wasn’t loose, that’s for sure. It got a lot better a couple of years into it.

How do you look back at your time with the group?

It was a dream come true. It was my favorite group. Chick was my favorite writer. I was in probably the greatest group for an electric guitar player possible. Chick was writing the most incredible music for electric guitar. And I was in the forefront. I was the guy who got the hippest guitar parts on the planet Earth at the time. It’s really true. I’m not bragging. Mahavishnu was not a compositional band. Go back and listen to their records — all they were doing was blowing. It was just tons of improvising and playing at fast tempos. But RTF was a composition band, way more than Mahavishnu and Weather Report. It was really classical rock and jazz, with tons of structure and parts, and the guitar in the forefront. It was great and really challenging. I took it very seriously.

Rumors keep coming and going about Return to Forever reuniting.

We’ve got Chick on third base to reconsider doing a reunion, but he’s got a mental block about it. We can’t quite figure out what it is. We discuss this every week. I talk to Stanley and Lenny [White] quite often. We’re good friends. Stanley and I agree on almost everything. We talk with the most logic you can imagine and we just can’t understand for the life of us why Return to Forever is not continuing, because it had such an incredible aura and image and was loved like you can’t believe.

Chick is off doing the Elektric Band again, which we’re all scratching our heads about. The three of us really want to do it and Chick says he really wants to do it and it’s gonna happen, but he won’t commit for some reason. He’s just keeps everybody hanging. It’s a constant cliffhanger. It really shouldn’t be, because time’s moving along and it’s not like Chick’s in a position where he’s selling out stadiums and doesn’t really need to do it. He really needs to do it. He may have a different viewpoint perhaps.

If Return to Forever got back together, it’d be huge. No doubt about it, because it’s nearly 20 years since the first reunion in 1985. People want to pay big money for reunions, like they’re doing for The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. If Mahavishnu got back together, everyone would come out of the woodwork.

Do you think some good, new music could come out a reunion?

It’d be nice, but we don’t need to make new music. It’d be really hard work. But imagine just doing the existing pieces — any of them from the past. They’re classics man. They’re still happening today. They're still great. They don’t sound dated to me, but we’d certainly have to make sure the pieces are played and executed real well. That’s all. It would take a lot of time, practice, energy and isolation.

During your early days coming up in Bergenfield, New Jersey, you were ostracized from the local scene because of your jazz-rock leanings not fitting in.

Yeah. That’s because I grew up taking lessons with a jazz teacher. It wasn’t by choice, it just turns out he had that training. So, anytime I improvised, I improvised with scales. The hot guitarists of the time could never play a scale. They still can’t play scales. They do riffs. Clapton, Hendrix and all those guys, they never played scales, just riffs. And riffs are played with the first and third finger only. That’s the difference between a rock guy and someone who has training in jazz or classical. There’s no such thing as playing a scale for those guys unless it’s pentatonic, but that only involves the first and third fingers too.

How did the guys in those Bergenfield bands that ditched you along the way react when you got the call from Return to Forever?

I haven’t seen them since. They haven’t had the balls to come up to me and congratulate me. That’s okay. I pretty much expected it. I didn’t look back, just forward. There was no “Ha, ha, ha!” or any of that stuff. [laughs]

Are there any parallels today, in that the mainstream isn’t necessarily hip to what you’re doing now?

Sure, yeah. There’s disappointment at not being accepted in any way — like when radio disses my stuff. It makes me fight a little harder. Basically, I make the most exciting music I can possibly make without getting dictated to by the constraints of idiots that run radio stations or the committees that approve what acts go on David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Man, I would love to play on those shows because the viewing audience is in the millions. But there are consultants that have to approve it and they need criteria. They go “How’s Al’s record selling? Oh, he only did X amount instead of this young band that sounds like a bunch of shit selling 100,000 times more records? Well, even though it’s a bunch of shit, hey, we want them.” That’s the mentality of the idiots that run those shows. They’re only concerned with ratings, not with quality of music. If they were, these shows would have comedians interspersed with some brilliance. But you’ll never get it. Welcome to America.

What do you make of the jam band scene? Some of them embrace virtuosity and fusion-oriented hybrids. And several of them are selling a lot of records.

It’s a glimmer of hope. It’s something that’s going against the grain of the shit that I’m talking about. Do I want to do something them? Sure, yeah, I wouldn’t mind being on a bill with some of those acts. I like them for being odd and different. We’re not jam band-like, but we could probably work and co-exist together. I think that kind of audience could be the next audience that’s interested in us. They like adventure, instead of commercial crap.

Describe your relationship with your audience. You still have quite a few hardcore, loyal fans out there.

They’re the last of the die-hard fans. I say that because it’s really whittled down to 200-to-300 people a night when I play. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever witnessed and the core fans agree. There used to be 2,000-to-3,000 people a night that were the die-hard, maniacally screaming fans. They’re gone. They’ve moved to a period in their lives where they have children, obligations, way more bills and lots of stuff going on. There’s too many other things happening to keep up on what Al Di Meola’s doing. So, yeah, I love the idea of keeping the core fans, but every time we go on tour, it seems to diminish. It doesn’t mean I’m being less liked or my music is less appreciated. That’s not it at all. However, perhaps one has to reach out like Santana did. Santana’s audience was diminishing to real small audiences too, but now he’s opened up to a gigantic audience. Guys like myself, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul — everyone across the board from that era — have to think about new ways and new things. It’s no longer about dazzling people with really interesting, super-adventurous compositions and technique anymore.

Al Di Meola