Al Di Meola: A return to the forever elegant gypsy
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Al Di Meola: A return to the forever elegant gypsy

Seminal jazz fusion guitarist reclaims the thundering music of his youth: “I feel like a rock 'n' roll guy!”

Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola’s current tour is revisiting his fusion roots for a new generation. His “Elegant Gypsy and More” tour finds him setting aside his acoustic playing of recent years and going full-on electric to reclaim his fiercest music.  

“This is primarily going to be a blast from the past of my most popular electric records,” Di Meola explained by phone. He will perform at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday.

“The electric guitar really brings out a different animal in me in response to the audience, especially playing the Les Paul,” he said. “It’s fun - I feel like a rock 'n' roll guy!”

A fusion giant

The former Berklee College of Music student first shot to fame as a 19-year-old, getting the call from Chick Corea to join the seminal fusion band Return to Forever.

Jazz fusion, a hybrid form that combined jazz improvisation with hard rock instrumentation and funk beats, evolved thanks to Miles Davis, who experimented with the new sound on “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.” Three bands dominated the explosion of fusion through the '70s, all with direct connections to Davis: Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever.

When Return to Forever broke up in 1976, solo artist Di Meola used his prodigious playing and composition skills on albums such as “Elegant Gypsy” (1977), “Casino” (1978) and “Spendido Hotel” (1980) to create a Latin-inspired funk fusion that presaged world music. His hyper-speed solos and precise technique influenced then up-and-coming guitarists, including Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai.

“When we started out, there were three pioneering bands of that whole era and I was one the guys that emerged from one of those pioneering bands,” he said.

Work takes its toll

The loud rock-style concerts also took a toll on Di Meola’s hearing. The 60-year-old has played mostly acoustic music for the past 20 years.

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“By the '80s that style really became exhausted, but now it’s become cool again and it’s what people love,” he said. “From the mid-'80s all the way up to 2000, I wasn’t even wanting to go back to that, given where I was going musically.”

Improvements in concert audio technology have reduced the danger and allowed Di Meola to re-connect to the style at a manageable volume.

“I hadn’t played a lot of these songs since the late '70s,” he said. “It’s something I never thought I would do again. I play a lot in Europe, small ensembles in contemporary classical type settings. But really, I made my name on these types of songs that we’ll be presenting. This is what people remember from early on, so it’s going to be a return to what they’ve been hoping I’d do again. It’s like bringing out another side of me that has been living within me and hasn’t been able to come out.”

Playing in the band

Playing with Di Meola are longtime keyboard player Philippe Saisse, who made his recording debut at 18 on “Splendido Hotel,” along with bassist Armand Sabal Lecco, who played on Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” album, percussionist Gumbi Ortiz and drummer Joel Taylor.

“Now I have decades worth of development that I’m bringing to the arrangements,” Di Meola said. “I think what’s happened to me is that I’ve become more of a composer over the years. I think that serves my longevity, so you’re not just based on how fast or how technically you play. That really isn’t me. I want to go back to the early pieces, but with this development, to really show where I’m at, at the moment. Things get updated as you go along.”

Di Meola’s most recent recording, “All Your Life,” is an acoustic guitar tribute to the Beatles in his own complex, adroit style. A new album, “Elysium,” due later this year, continues his newfound re-engagement with electric guitars.

“I have a new album coming out focusing on my compositions and we’ll play one or two those at the show,” he said. “I was working with the Les Paul and a pedal board and I started playing brand new compositions I wrote that were intended for an acoustic guitar and you know what? It sounded great with an electric guitar! So I’m kinda back, you know, in a different era, but I’m back doing it. Even though the songs were written on an acoustic guitar, all the melodies and improvisation were played on a Les Paul, for that specific sound that people remember from my early days.”

Fusion drummer Billy Cobham and his band will open the show. Cobham played on “Bitches Brew,” which led to his joining Miles Davis guitarist John McLaughlin in forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Since then, Cobham has also enjoyed a prolific solo career.

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Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola

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If you go

  • What: Al Di Meola and Billy Cobham in concert, sponsored by Danny Zelisko Presents
  • When: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress
  • Tickets: Reserved seats $27 – 87, plus fees. Tickets are available through the Fox Theatre