By Craig Harris
Al DiMeola was a few days shy of his 20th birthday when he debuted with Chick Corea’s jazz-fusion band, Return To Forever (RTF), in 1974. Nearly three-and-a-half decades later, the New Jersey-born guitarist continues to be one of jazz’s most influential instrumen-talists.
Fans will have the opportunity to hear him at the Newport, R.I. Jazz Festival at the Tennis Hall of Fame on Aug. 5 and at Fort Adams State Park on Aug. 6 and 7.
In addition to 23 solo albums, including “Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody,” released in March 2011, he’s collaborated with John McLaughlin and Paco deLucia, as the Trio, and Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty, as Rites of Strings, and has lent his distinctive guitar sound to recordings by Luciano Pavarotti, Paul Simon, Dave Matthews, classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco, and Japanese jazz guitarist, Yutaka Kobayesh.
According to DiMeola, though, his most satisfying playing has come as leader of the World Sinfonia, a multinational ensemble that he formed in 1991. “It’s the most rewarding thing that I’ve done in a long time,” DiMeola said. “RTF was at the beginning of the fusion. The music was highly technical and high energy. But, as audiences have grown up, they less want to be hit over the head with loudness. They’re more open to acoustic music that’s more story-like.”
Much of the inspiration behind World Sinfonia was sparked by DiMeola’s friendship with the late “father of modern tango,” Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). “It was the discovery of his music that let me see that you could meld high energy and deep emotion together successfully,” DiMeola explained. “That had been absent from music, especially within the fusion realm.”
The global range of the World Sinfonia’s repertoire should be no surprise to longtime fans. His roots in Latin music were apparent as early as his debut solo album, “Land of the Midnight Sun,” in 1976. “There were no Latin influences on the electric version of RTF,” he said. “But, I used to hang out in Latin clubs in New York. When I was putting my own band together, I wanted to retain the dynamics of where RTF had left off and add Latin percussion.”
Though he claims to be “a better percussionist than a guitarist,” DiMeola has spent a lifetime mastering stringed instruments. Initially drawn to straight-ahead jazz guitarists, like Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell, his vision was greatly expanded after hearing Larry Coryell, the father of fusion guitar. “He was the first to combine elements of country music, rock, harmony, and improvisation,” DiMeola said. “That was really appealing to me as a teenager. I had been listening to rock and was starting to get into jazz. I got to see how they worked together.”
Enrolling in the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, in 1971, DiMeola advanced quickly. Sharing a fusion band with keyboardist Barry Miles by his second semester, he was touring the world with RTF within two years.
The steps leading to him joining the world’s top-ranked fusion group were taken as DiMeola accompanied a childhood friend to a RTF concert at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. “I must have said something like, ‘Man, if I could ever have a chance to sit in with that band,’” he remembered. “They were my favorite group at the time. My friend was an amateur recording engineer and had some live tapes of me playing. He took it on himself to seek Chick out so he could lay a tape on him. He managed to bother him until he gave it a listen. It was at the point where they had Earl Klugh, but they were looking for someone else.”
While the impact of his playing with RTF continues to reverberate, DiMeola’s tenure lasted only two years before the group disbanded. “Those were the years that the band really soared,” he said. “They’d already been getting a lot of attention, but those years were the ones that were really concentrated. We had a really good recording contract with Columbia and they put a lot of money into the band. It feels like it was a five- to 10-year period. So much was done in such a short time.”
Though he participated in RTF’s reunion tour of 2010, DiMeola declined a similar opportunity this summer with French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Australian guitarist Frank Gambale (Chick Corea Elektric Band) taking his place. “RTF was a blast from the past,” he said, “and I really hoped that it would move in the direction of the future. But, Chick is very self-centered and he didn’t recognize our growth. He tried to keep us down as sidemen. We allowed him to get more of the money, more of the points on tour, but he took advantage. He took all of the money from the recording and all of the money from the DVD.”
Joined by the World Sinfonia, DiMeola will be making his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 15 years. “It’s a very prestigious event,” he said, “and you want to be associated with it. But, it’s been a long time since I was there – way too long.”
For further information about his performances, call 401-848-5055.
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