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Live Review: Al di Meola @ The Birchmere — 5/3/24

Guitar virtuosos Al di Meola’s recent performance at The Birchmere almost didn’t happen.

Last September, while performing at the Arenele Romane in Bucharest, Romania, the jazz-fusion legend suffered a heart attack on stage. Fortunately, he was attended to by, as he said, “the one doctor in the country” who was capable of dealing with the situation.

Over two sets at The Birchmere on May 3, di Meola looked strong, and his playing was as sharp as it’s ever been — and his playing is remarkable. I’m not normally a fan of jazz, and will admit to having some of the prejudices many of my generation have about the music, viewing it as slow, tepid, toothless, suitable as the background in a dentist’s office. When people of my generation think of jazz, the most salient point of reference is the smooth jazz of Kenny G, which couldn’t be more different from what Al does.

Al’s music has muscle and force. It’s not slow at all — his fingers move across the guitar with blinding speed that is almost inhuman.  Before the show, the waitress warned our table, “It’s about to get loud.” This isn’t easy listening!

As he explained, much of the music on this current tour is drawn from his early, electric work as a solo artist. Over the course of his career, di Meola has worked in a variety of styles, both electric and acoustic, drawing from many musical traditions around the world, especially Spanish music. This year marks 50 years for di Meola in the music business. In 1974, he was a 19-year-old student at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, when a friend in his home state of New Jersey recorded him on a TEAC 4-Track machine. Before he played, the friend convinced him to take a tab of acid, “and I’ve never played better in my life.” The enterprising friend got the tape to Chick Correa, the leader of jazz-fusion band Return To Forever, which happened to be Al’s favorite group. A few weeks later, Chick called Al, who at first didn’t believe it was really him. But it was, and the band’s guitarist was leaving, so Chick invited Al to join. 

Al’s first appearance with RTF was at Carnegie Hall, an auspicious beginning. on the way to the venue, in a limo with his parents, his dad made the old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall — “practice, practice, practice.” Al didn’t have the heart to tell him it was actually, “acid, acid, acid.” Di Meola mentioned that his first time playing in DC was at Constitution Hall.

Al and his band kicked off the set with “One Night Last June,” followed by “The Wizard,” from his album Land of the Midnight Sun. The album, he said, was recorded in the same studio where John Lennon was recording. Though he didn’t meet the Beatle, who is one of his heroes (Al has recorded a couple albums of Beatles tunes), he did play ping-pong with John’s son, “and I beat him every game.”

Stream “The Wizard” by Al di Meola on YouTube:

Next up was “Beyond The 7th Galaxy,” followed by “Flight Over Rio.” “Ava’s Dance In The Moonlight,” he explained, was inspired by his daughter, and it appears on the forthcoming double album he’ll be releasing later this year. Al and his band wrapped up the first set with “Dark Eye Tango,” then left the stage for a brief intermission.

For the second set, Al and his band just played. They opened with “Elegant Gypsy Suite,” from his album of the same title, followed by “Egyptian Danza,” “Senor Mouse,” and “Midnight Tango.” They left the stage briefly after finishing the second set with “Pharaoh Kings.” When they came back for their encore, di Meola got a bit emotional, choking up a little, as he talked about his brush with death last year in Eastern Europe. He sent the audience home with “Race With the Devil on Spanish Highway.”

Al clearly loves making music, and you can hear that passion in the way he plays. He’s one of the most skilled guitarists I’ve ever seen — in a class with Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder, and Richard Thompson, albeit very different — but there’s as much emotion in his playing as their is technical mastery, which is to say, a lot.