Guitarist Al Di Meola doesn't like to be pigeonholed. Known early in his career for the burning electric riffs he fired up for Chick Corea's Return to Forever band, the Jersey City native has found, to his frustration, that many of his fans, as well as record companies, expect the same kind of play from him year after year.
Di Meola, who plays tonight at Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre, has always resisted that kind of categorization. Sure, he loved playing electric dates--as he did with Corea and on several albums under his own name for the Columbia label--but there's also an acoustic side to him that reflects his interest in worldly styles and ethnic traditions.
So in 1991, the guitarist began to pursue both directions. His "Kiss My Axe" recording found him at his electric best. A second, almost simultaneous release, "World Sinfonia," found him playing acoustic guitar and pursuing his cosmopolitan muse. If the critics and the people in charge of radio playlists couldn't easily peg him here or there, all the better.
But Di Meola has since discovered that keeping the two sides of his guitar playing separate diminished both. The release late last year of "Orange and Blue" put an end to this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach. He combined electric and acoustic aspects into a single entity, the ensemble he calls the World Project band.
Still, some confusion continues, as Di Meola explained in a recent phone interview before a concert in Tempe, Ariz.
"I guess the word world is confusing some people. They're expecting a new kind of acoustic group. But (the new group) is meant to combine the electric group and the Sinfonia. Maybe I should just drop the word."
In live performances, Di Meola has always combined his two sides.
At the Coach House in 1992, not long after the release of "Axe" and "World Sinfonia," he blurred the electric-acoustic distinction by playing from both recordings, as well as pulling tunes from his post-Return to Forever electric days. (He'll continue that stance when he plays Costa Mesa.)
"The World Project was designed to present a history of all that I've done in one show along with some earlier material and some stuff from Return to Forever. There's a lot from 'Orange and Blue,' we play the 'Tango Suite' that's dedicated to (late Argentine) Astor Piazzolla. I use a variety of guitars during the show.
"I think it was important to establish with my audience the main direction of my career. For too many years, I would go out with the Sinfonia and the acoustic trio (with fellow guitarist John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia), groups better suited to the European market. Here, in the States, they still wanted to see my electric side. To satisfy my musical wants, I've combined both in this one group. It's been kind of tricky."
Di Meola's frustration with categorization has been a 10-year battle for acceptance.
"It's hard to show progress, to show people that you've matured and changed, when all they want to hear are the things you've done in the past," Di Meola explained. "Europe is still an easier continent to play, artistically. You can do something obscure, and they consider it to be avant-garde, and they go for it. Here, when you've done something that's popular, that's all they want to hear, year after year."
"Orange and Blue" is a far cry from his earlier electric efforts, such as "Casino" from 1978. Along with Argentine keyboard player Mario Parmesano and Puerto Rican percussionist Gumbi Ortiz--both of whom are in Di Meola's traveling band--the recording includes such guests as New York bassist Marc Johnson, California drummer Peter Erskine, Palestinian violinist Simon Shaheen, Israeli vocalist Noa and Greek vocalist George Dalaras.
But when he starts to compare his current direction, which looks heavily at the tango tradition, with his youthful Return to Forever days, he sees similarities.
"I love playing both kinds of music," Di Meola said. "Sure, the sentimentality, the romantic aspect involved in the tango is strikingly different than the Return to Forever fusion. But from a blase classical comparison, there are a lot of similarities in the technical way they are structured, the way they use arpeggios and the challenge that goes into the approach."
Though he's looking forward to doing a second World Project recording, one that will be "more electric, more ambitious" than the first, Di Meola also has a number of other projects coming up.
"There's serious talk about doing another trio album with Paco (De Lucia) and John McLaughlin," he said. "And next month, I'll be recording an all-acoustic album with (violinist) Jean Luc Ponty and (bassist) Stanley Clarke to be called 'The Rite of Strings.' "
No doubt the diversity represented in those upcoming recordings will serve only to further obscure the identity of Al Di Meola. And that's just the way he likes it.
* The Al Di Meola World Project appears tonight at the Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880, 8 p.m. $21 in advance, $25 at the door.