A pioneer of blending world music and jazz, going back to early Latin-tinged fusion outings like 1976's Land of the Midnight Sun, 1977's Elegant Gypsy and 1978's Casino, the guitar great continues to reflect the rich influence of flamenco, tango, Middle Eastern, Brazilian and African musics, as evidenced by recent outings like 1998's The Infinite Desire, 2000's The Grand Passion, 2006's Consequence of Chaos and 2008's La Melodia, Live in Milano.
Di Meola's ongoing fascination with complex rhythmic syncopation combined with provocative lyrical melodies and sophisticated harmony has been at the heart of his music throughout a celebrated career that has earned him three gold albums and more than six million in record sales worldwide. He has been particularly enamored over the past 20 years by the tango music of the late Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, whose compositions he has interpreted over time, beginning with 1990's Di Meola Plays Piazzolla, continuing to 1993's Heart of the Immigrants, 2002's Flesh on Flesh and 2007's Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar. "Piazzolla had a profound effect on my development as a musician and as a person,” says Al. “We became close friends, often communicating by mail. And during the course of this friendship my admiration and desire to learn more about this great man intensified.”
A native of New Jersey who still resides in the Garden State, Di Meola was born in Jersey City on July 22, 1954. Growing up in Bergenfield with the music of Elvis Presley, The Ventures and The Beatles, he naturally gravitated to guitar as a youngster and by his early teens was already an accomplished player. Attaining such impressive skills at such a young age didn't come easy for Al but rather was the result of focused dedication and intensive periods of woodshedding between his junior and senior years in high school. “I used to practice the guitar eight to ten hours a day,” he told Down Beat. “And I was trying to find myself, or find the kind of music that suited where I was going with the guitar.”
His earliest role models in jazz included guitarists Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell. But when he discovered Larry Coryell, whom Al would later dub “The Godfather of Fusion,” he was taken with the guitarist's unprecedented blending of jazz, blues and rock into one seamless vocabulary on the instrument. “I used to ride the bus from New Jersey to see him at little clubs in Greenwich Village,” he recalls. “Wherever he was playing, I'd be there.”
In 1971, Di Meola enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and by the second semester there began playing in a fusion quartet led by keyboardist Barry Miles. A gig tape of that band was later passed on to Chick Corea by a friend of Al's, and in the early part of 1974 the 19-year-old guitarist was tapped to join the fusion superband as a replacement for guitarist Bill Connors. “I was just sitting around my apartment in Boston on a Friday afternoon when Chick called and asked me to come to a rehearsal in New York,” he recalls. “I couldn't believe it. But in 10 minutes I packed some clothes in a bag, got a ride to New York and never saw that apartment in Boston again.”
Following a weekend of rehearsals with Chick, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, Di Meola made his RTF debut at Carnegie Hall, officially launching his career into the stratosphere. "Playing with Chick in Return To Forever was the first significant step in my development as a player,” says Al. “Chick is another major influence in my life. He has always been a wonderful supporter, major musical inspiration and a friend.” After three landmark recordings with Return To Forever -- 1974's Where Have I Known You Before, 1975's Grammy Award winning No Mystery and 1976's Romantic Warrior -- the group disbanded and Al subsequently started up his career as a solo artist. His 1976 debut as a leader, Land of the Midnight Sun, was a blazing showcase of his signature chops and Latin-tinged compositions that featured a stellar cast including drummers Steve Gadd and Lenny White, bassist Anthony Jackson and Jaco Pastorius, keyboardists Jan Hammer, Barry Miles and Chick Corea and percussionist Mingo Lewis. Over the course of six more albums with Columbia Records -- Elegant Gypsy, Casino, Splendido Hotel, Electric Rendezvous, Tour De Force and Scenario -- Al established himself as an influential force in contemporary music.
1980 marked the triumph of the acoustic guitar Trio with Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin. Their debut recording on Columbia Records, Friday Night in San Francisco, became a landmark recording that surpassed the two million mark in sales. The three virtuosos toured together from 1980 through 1983, releasing the studio album Passion, Grace & Fire in 1982. In 1995, they reunited for a third recording, Guitar Trio, follow by another triumphant world tour. In early 1996, Di Meola formed a new trio with the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and RTF bandmate Stanley Clarke called The Rite of Strings. He subsequently recorded with the likes of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, pop stars Paul Simon and Dave Matthews, classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco and Japanese jazz pianist Yutaka Kobayashi. Over the course of his career, Di Meola has also worked and recorded with Phil Collins, Carlos Santana, Steve Winwood, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Milton Naciemento, Egberto Gismonti, Stevie Wonder, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai, Frank Zappa and many more.
With the March 2011 release of Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, Al's main focus remains his New World Sinfonia. “I'm just totally involved with the new group,” he says. “Everybody's happy and totally into the music. The RTF reunion tour was fun and it was great for the fans, but it was more of a nostalgic thing. I'm more interested now in moving forward with the New World Sinfonia, which has really developed into something beautiful. For me, it's the most rewarding thing I've done in a long, long time, all the way around. What I'm doing now is just completely satisfying, like a phenomenal meal and a great glass of vintage wine.”