Back to Basics with Al

It has been five years since we have had a new studio album from one of the greatest jazz visionaries of our time, guitarist Al Di Meola.
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It has been five years since we have had a new studio album from one of the greatest jazz visionaries of our time, guitarist Al Di Meola. On his new album, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, the guitar legend serves up a collection of 15 roadtested tunes that showcase his mastery of complex, rhythmic syncopation, as well as his ability to deliver hauntingly beautiful melodies on both acoustic and electric guitar.

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On Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, Di Meola worked with World Sinfonia (accordionist Fausto Beccalossi, second guitarist Kevin Seddiki, bassist Victor Miranda, drummer Peter Kazsas and percussionist Gumbi Ortiz) and chose to do most of the basic tracks at New York City’s legendary Avatar Studios Studio A, with Frank Filipetti handling engineering duties. Pro Sound News spoke with Di Meola about his latest venture into the studio, which followed several years of relentless touring and refinement of the material.

On Taking Time Between Projects:

It’s going on five or six years now since my last studio record. This time afforded us a lot of time to nurture and develop the music. We had a good, solid year of warming up the material for the new record before going in the studio; when it’s not done this way, you will always feel frustrated a year or two later that the music didn’t develop in the way it could have.

I think the writing on Radical Rhapsody is fresh—I don’t think you can really say that it’s a blast from the past at all, except that there is an electric guitar sound there. The writing is more forward-thinking than other things that I have done in the vein of Casino, Elegant Gypsy, or something else from the early period.

On the Writing Process:

When I first start writing, I usually have a very rhythmic arpeggiated figure which then develops harmonically. If I find something that seems to be appealing enough and seems to inspire a melody, I put that whole arpeggiated part down. Then I will write a bass part that has a lot of syncopation and is very different from the rhythm of the arpeggio. I literally write all the notes for each instrument, except for the drums and the percussion, which I have very specific ideas about since I come from a drummer and percussionist’s point of view.

Unless you have specific parts that are written and worked out, you leave it up to the players. If you leave the freedom factor wide open, it can be messy and will usually not come out the way you intended. You’re supposed to start with a very specific part, and then hopefully the maturity of the player will bring something fresh to what you’ve written and embellish on it a little bit.

On Maturing as an Artist:

A lot of the early fusion music from the group that I was with when I first started was action-packed, super-loud and full of technique, but many of the solos were based on one chord: E minor. There is just so much you can do with that kind of limited harmony. So my intent as I matured was to keep the stronger elements of the writing, which were always the more interesting parts for me, and then incorporate more interesting parts of harmonic movement through arpeggio writing.

In the early ‘80s, I became friends with Astor Piazzolla, who was the modern day Bach of tango. That really elevated my awareness and inspired me to grow as a writer. This friendship was profound, and represented more movement than I could ask for in a whole career. I really do enjoy incorporating some of his work in my own stuff, but I do it differently: sort of like Buenos Aires meets Cuba.

On Recording at Avatar:

We started recording basic tracks for the album at Avatar Studio A—the big room—with Frank Filipetti. Then we recorded some other tracks as well as some overdubbing at my own studio, and we also went down to Hit Factory in Miami for a few more basic tracks. We did the vocal recording with Katsu Naito, who was very instrumental in the record’s sound after Frank did the basics.

If you’re not using a great-sounding room and the best engineer, it could have a negative effect on your basic tracks. I really wanted to ensure that the foundation of the record was as good as it could be, so later on I would not have to say, “I wish we had done it differently,” or “Maybe we should redo the basics.” After such a long period of touring, I was sure that we had quality material, so I really wanted to have the tracks recorded by someone who is considered to be one of the greatest engineers in the business. I also wanted to record in a room that I have worked in before and is regarded one of the bestsounding rooms in the world. So that’s what we did.

On Miking the Guitar:

I prefer Schoeps mics, and I have used a pair of them forever. They seem to be the best microphone for my nylon acoustic guitar. These are usually set up in a crossed pattern, a little bit north of the hole of the instrument. For my electric guitars, I use the Royer R-121 ribbon mics—there is nothing better—and I put this right on the cabinet. The Royers produce a fantastic sound when you have a full gain setting on your amplifier. A guitar might sound great in the room you’re playing in, but in the control room, it can be a completely different story. With the Royers, what I hear in the room is actually what I hear back in the control room, and that is exactly what I am looking for.

On Keeping It Simple:

Recording in the digital age is a real time-consuming affair. It takes a hell of a lot longer to make a record when there are so many variables, as opposed to the past, when there weren’t many variables at all. It’s a much longer process when you have so much more that you can do. Back in the ’70s, we didn’t have all these interruptions that everyone seems to have today with cell phones, computers and everything else. When I look around, I can see that it’s very hard for people to focus.

Jeff Touzeau is a regular contributor to Pro Sound News. His latest book is The Green Musician Guide: Sound Ideas for a Sound Planet (Cengage).