Beginning with his 1974 debut with Return to Forever and his own subsequent bands, Al DiMeola has made an indelible mark on audiences with his faster-than-a-bullet-train electric guitar work on both jazz/fusion and Latin-flavored tunes.
DiMeola demonstrated in the first of two sets Saturday night at the Coach House, where he appeared with his World Sinfonia quintet, that though the context of his group may have changed, he still loves to play fast and clean.
But he also showed that he's adding a soft side to that original edgy pyrotechnic focus.
The New Jersey native, who Saturday played an amplified steel-stringed, open-body, acoustic-style guitar, offered a series of Latin and flamenco-flavored vehicles, many with warm melodies, some with a tango feeling. The tunes, all meticulously arranged and performed with admirable exactness by DiMeola and his cohorts, swayed between furious tempos and heated rhythmic exchanges and lulling, dulcet-toned passages that soothed the ear.
The instruments employed by his ensemble members, who also perform on the leader's new "World Sinfonia" Tomato Records CD, gave these pieces an authentic color.
In particular there was Dino Saluzzi on bandoneon, the large Spanish relative of the concertina that is associated with Argentine tango music. Also on hand was Chris Carrington, acoustic guitar, Arto Tuncboyaci on tom-toms, cymbals and vocals and Gumbi Ortiz on congas and percussion.
The absence of keyboards, bass or traditional trap drums in no way diluted the impact of the performance.
DiMeola began with "Orient Blue," a duo with Tuncboyaci, a Turkish craftsman who used brushes on his two tom-toms to great effect. This brief piece, and the two succeeding ones, set the mood for the evening.
After a gentle melody passage, DiMeola closed his eyes and soloed in this Latin mode, picking out zooming lines, then slower ones, delivering a series of whammed chords, then tapping the front of his instrument like a drummer. All the while his partner--who at some points sang long syllables, achieving the effect of a chorus--added subtle but driving drum patterns that kicked the proceedings.
Ortiz was added for "Perpetual Emotion" and "Rhapsody in Blue"--no relation to the George Gershwin classic--tunes similar to "Orient Blue," though with a wider range of dynamics and feelings.
On "Rhapsody," DiMeola, whose execution was phenomenally clear, played a sequence of notes so fast they blurred, just the way autos on the freeway in a movie do, when the film is sped up. The leader followed this mad gallop with some very quiet passages where the notes were held out, then he was off again on another dash.
Later, as Ortiz soloed, the guitarist engaged in some humorous exchanges with the conga drummer, at one point working up a portion of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page's introduction to "Whole Lotta Love," after which he broke into a big smile.
The tune, as did several during the performance, stopped with a sudden rhythmic burst.
With Saluzzi and Carrington on board, DiMeola played Chick Corea's "No Mystery," a selection that moved between difficult albeit crisply articulated written passages and sections that were improvised. Here Saluzzi, with his high-pitched reedy instrument, brought an aura of both beauty and melancholy to the music.
Often DiMeola and Saluzzi would trade solos, Saluzzi sometimes playing at a quicksliver clip, at other times extending his notes, achieving a somber, introspective mood. The guitarist likewise played so rapidly his fingers looked like a hummingbird's wings, sometimes he offered notes that were overflowing with sweetness.
As DiMeola led his troops through "Last Tango for Astor" and "Tango Suite," some of the audience became fidgety, screaming out, "Play some of the old stuff," referring to pieces like "Mediterranean Sundance," one of his late '70s hits. (He offered it as an encore.)
These listeners were right. A little Latin and tango music goes a long way, and one longed for a real blues or even a pop-flavored ditty from DiMeola's Return to Forever days. Still, the show revealed DiMeola as an artist who is willing to step outside his more popular image to offer music for which he has true feeling.