Al Di Meola was just a 19-year-old student at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1974 when a jazz giant, pianist Chick Corea, approached him with a once-in-a-lifetime offer: a spot in his jazz fusion outfit Return to Forever.
“I was in deep water,” Di Meola recalls. “I had to sink or swim. I practiced all the time – I was obsessed and determined to climb that ladder.”
After the short-lived, critically acclaimed Return to Forever disbanded, Di Meola released his 1976 solo debut, Land of the Midnight Sun, revealing an adoration for world music. His epic 1977 follow-up, Elegant Gypsy – considered one of the greatest jazz fusion records of the ’70s – attracted both jazz and rock fans with its blend of instrumental prog rock and more traditional acoustic flamenco.
It helped establish Di Meola as one of the world’s most influential jazz guitarists. By now Guitar Player Magazine’s readers have voted him “Best Jazz Guitarist” in the world multiple times. His otherworldly technical prowess is still unrivaled, buoyed by intricate compositions and a lightning velocity at which he churns out complex solos, influenced by a generation of ’80s metal shredders, including Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora.
But Di Meola can also deliver unplugged. Friday Night in San Francisco, a live recording of an acoustic show featuring Di Meola, Spanish flamenco star Paco de Lucía and another one of jazz’s greatest axe men, John McLaughlin, has sold over 2 million copies and been deemed “the most influential of all live acoustic guitar albums” by respected jazz author and critic Walter Kolosky.
Di Meola continues to unleash original solo material. He penned his most recent record, Elysium, a mix of acoustic and electric, while going through a divorce.
“I buried myself in my studio – writing was the one thing that kept me from dwelling on the thing,” Di Meola says. “Everything that popped into my head I wrote down and that’s what you have.”
The dissonant melody, tempo mix-ups and a tirelessly anxious rhythm section of “Monsters” paints a musical incarnation of a gnarly matrimonial split-up, which Di Meola describes as “the horrendous ritual of divorce in America.”
While recording, Di Meola met someone who helped him move on from the darkness surrounding his divorce to a place approximating the album’s title track. Its idyllic feel comes from a gentleness in its feather-soft rhythm section and its acoustic intro, which opens up to a landscape filled with stunning melody.
AL DI MEOLA 8pm Saturday, June 25. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $33-$53. 649-1070, www.goldenstatetheatre.com