Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola has been to Houston before. "One of my first shows ever was at the Astrodome with Chick Corea when I was 19 years old. At the Astrodome. With 40,000 people. Can you imagine that?" he laughs.
Of course, the Astrodome was a step down for Di Meola by then -- his first show with Corea and the Return to Forever band had been at Carnegie Hall just a few weeks earlier. In 1974, Di Meola was a student living in Boston, where he attended the Berklee School of Music, when out of the blue Chick Corea called him up and asked him to come to New York for a rehearsal, eventually asking Di Meola to join his fusion group Return to Forever. Di Meola jumped at the chance, but understandably had a few problems going from a college classroom to some of the most important world stages overnight. "I just thought that it was a dream come true. Was I ready? I didn't think that I was, but I wanted the chance to try. I remember that within the first month of playing with them, I tried to get out of it. I didn't think I was [doing] my part, owning up to it. Chick was the one that was totally convinced that I could do it. So at that point, I thought, 'Oh boy, now I better really get my act together.' I wanted to show him that I could really cut it because he believed in me better than I believed in myself at that point, and that was the spark. That started everything."
The "everything" Di Meola refers to includes more than 30 CDs, dozens of tours and a reputation for being one of the best fusion guitarists on the planet. Currently on the road promoting his latest CD, Consequence of Chaos, a return to the solid-body electric guitar, Di Meola is commemorating his breakthrough 1976 CD, Elegant Gypsy. "It's sort of like a celebration and anniversary of Elegant Gypsy, with an emphasis on getting some of the alumni from that period, like [drummer] Steve Gadd, [keyboardist] Barry Miles, and Chick [Corea] -- although he didn't play on [Elegant Gypsy], he was defiantly an important figure in that time," says Di Meola. "Also, I wanted to bring back the electric guitar and some of that energy from that time."
Di Meola wrote each of the 15 tunes on Consequence of Chaos, which range from 56 seconds to nine minutes in length. While a cohesive unit, Consequence is not a concept album. One of the most interesting and well-done songs on the CD is "Africana Suite," a complicated arrangement of syncopated percussion by Kornel Horvath with Di Meola on acoustic guitar and marimba. "It's probably one of the more difficult pieces that I've ever written. At the same time it has a beautiful vibe to it. There was a lot of counterpoint that I had written for the whole band, keyboards, bass, everything. It was so complex it definitely reminded me of some of the African music that I had heard over the years. When I tried to rehearse it I thought, 'This is going to take some doing to get down. In fact, my part alone is interesting enough to hone in on just that part.' And so that's what I did. I just played basically my part. Now there may be a later version that has all the counterpoint with the other instruments, like a part two of the piece."
Four of the tracks are under two minutes long, exceedingly short especially for jazz pieces, and yet they are complete, whole and not just transitional tidbits. "Those little pieces are the sorbet in between the different [courses]. It's really cleansing the palate, and relaxing, in between the long excursions and suite-like pieces that I've written. I wanted to have pieces that are just kind of soothing to listen to in a sense.
"I'm all about pacing and not exhausting the listener. I think the strength of a composer is someone that can stir an audience's imagination and not exhaust them completely with too long a solo or too loud a section for too long," he says.
Only two of the sidemen from Consequence of Chaos appear with Di Meola on this tour, since Corea and most of the others are working on their own projects. "I have a keyboard player from Argentina, Mario Parmisano. Gumbi Ortiz, on percussion, he's been with me for 17 years, he's just outstanding. Both of them are on the CD. I also have two new players that are just brilliant. The drummer Tony Escapa from Puerto Rico is probably the hottest drummer on the scene today, just ridiculously talented. He's 24 years old. And then Mike Pope on bass, he's just blowing everybody away. It's a really hot band."
Di Meola says that this tour has been different from previous outings. "My returning to playing the electric guitar has brought some people out of the woodwork. There's definitely an up[swing] in attendance and the shows are more vibrant. Even though the show has quite a lot of acoustic music mixed in, the electric side of things has brought on a whole new level of enthusiasm and attention to the music."
Al Di Meola performs Thursday, December 7, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease, 713-654-7846.
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