Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Di Meola, Al

Al Di Meola is well known for his electric guitar work, which helped anchor Chick Corea’s groundbreaking jazz-rock fusion group Return to Forever in the seventies. Since then, Di Meola has experimented with other fusions, including jazz and flamenco, and a successful guitar trio with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia.

Di Meola was born to an Italian family on July 22nd, 1954 in Jersey City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey located in Bergen County. Growing up Di Meola has stated he was highly influenced by the guitar work of jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. He studied guitar from the time he was a child, and also frequented Latin music spots as a teenager. His main jazz teacher in New Jersey from the age of nine and up taught the budding guitarist a scalar approach, as opposed the riff-heavy approach of the era's rock guitarists, such as Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix.

When Di Meola completed his studies at Bergenfield High School, he enrolled in classes at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While at Berklee for the diploma program in guitar performance, he maintained a rigorous practice schedule and by the end of his first year he had dropped out of school to join keyboardist Barry Miles’ group. At the same time, Chick Corea was starting to look for a guitarists to replace Bill Connors in Return to Forever. Di Meola was recruited by pianist Chick Corea to join the group when he was nineteen.

Di Meola joined Return to Forever just as the band was switching styles from Latin-jazz-fusion to a more progressive and heavier style. Di Meola’s first appearance with Return to Forever came in 1974 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. His first recording with the group was on Return to Forever’s fourth studio album, Where Have I Known You Before, on which he can be heard on the Stanley Clarke song "Vulcan Worlds."

In 1975, Return to Forever released their fifth studio album, No Mystery. Di Meola’s style began to take its current shape on this album, as heard on the songs "No Mystery" and the adventurous composition "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal." No Mystery won the Grammy award that year for Best Instrumental Jazz Record by a group.

The band switched labels from Polydor to Columbia Records for their sixth studio album, Romantic Warrior. This was the last album to feature Di Meola on guitar but it was also the band’s best selling album, and achieved gold status in the United States.

Following his departure from Return to Forever, Di Meola released his first solo album in 1976 entitled Land of the Midnight Sun. It featured a plethora of well known musicians including bassists Stanley Clarke and Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Gadd and Chick Corea on the duet song “Short Tales of the Black Forest.” Di Meola released his second Columbia album Elegant Gypsy the following year and it featured Jackson, Gadd, and Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer. These albums exhibit Di Meola’s extreme technical demand of the guitar but more importantly highlight his talents as a composer.

In 1980, Di Meola combined forces with fellow guitarists John McLaughlin and Spaniard Paco de Lucia for several shows. One of these shows resulted in the live album Friday Night in San Francisco, which chronicled the guitar group on December 5th, 1980 at the Warfield Theatre. This album was a breakthrough for guitar albums as the band ran through songs such as John McLaughlin’s "Guardian Angel" at breakneck speeds. The trio followed this release with 1983’s Passion, Grace, and Fire, which was a studio recording. Also in 1980, the guitarist toured for a brief period of time with Latin guitarist Carlos Santana.

In 1982, Di Meola appeared on Chick Corea’s album Touchstone which came out on Warner Brothers. He is heard on the song "Compadres" along with Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums. Also that same year, Di Meola released the live album Tour De Force which featured Jan Hammer on keyboards, Steve Gadd on drums, and Anthony Jackson on bass. The band is heard on the song "Egyptian Danza," although Di Meola does the majority of the soloing on this song.

Di Meola continued to release experimental albums for the rest of the 1980s including an album in 1987 with Greek singer George Dalaras called Latin.

In 1990, Di Meola released World Sinfonia, which featured his arrangement of the Return to Forever song "No Mystery." In 1991, The flamboyant guitarist released his album Kiss My Axe. His band consisting of frequent collaborator Anthony Jackson and a surprise appearance by keyboardist Barry Miles perform on the title track, along with drummer Omar Hakim.

In 1995, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and bassist Stanley Clarke teamed up with Di Meola for their collective release Rite of Strings. Di Meola’s tone is very inviting in the acoustic atmosphere of the recording. Several songs of note include "Indigo," "Renaissance," and "Topanga."

In 1996, Verve Records released the third album by the Guitar Trio of Di Meola, McLaughlin, and de Lucia entitled The Guitar Trio. It featured many original compositions from the group as well as an interpretation of the Luis Bonfa song “Manhă de Carnaval.”

Di Meola began the new millennium on the same track he left the 1990s. He released several albums independently, including 2002’s Flesh on Flesh and 2006’s Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar, Volume 1: Music of Astor Piazzolla. Featured on this album is the solo guitar song "Milonga Del Angel," on which Di Meola also plays percussion. \

In 2008, it was announced that Return to Forever was reuniting for a world tour with members Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White. Their tour began in the late spring of 2008 and is slated to continue through the end of the year in the United States and continue to Europe in 2009.

Di Meola currently resides in Northern New Jersey though he has stated in several interviews that he owns a house in Miami, Florida and prefers composing music there. He also has a teenage daughter. Di Meola primarily performs on acoustic guitar nowadays and has been a frequent contributor and author for many different guitar magazines.

Select Discography

With Return to Forever

Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974)

No Mystery (Polydor, 1975)

Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976)

As Al Di Meola

Land of the Midnight Sun (Columbia, 1976)

Elegant Gypsy (Columbia, 1977)

Casino (Columbia, 1978)

Kiss My Axe (Tomato, 1991)

Diabolic and Seductions for Solo Guitar (Inakustik, 2006)

With John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia

Friday Night In San Francisco (Philips, 1981)

Passion, Grace, and Fire (Philips, 1983)

The Guitar Trio (Verve, 1996)

Contributor: Jared Pauley