Daytripping with Di Meola: from Berklee to the Beatles and Beyond
Guitarist Al Di Meola was merely fantasizing when he told a friend back in 1974 that he’d “give anything” to be able to play in Chick Corea’s Return To Forever jazz fusion band. After all, the Jersey City-bred Di Meola was only 19 and still studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston. But the friend turned out to be an amateur recording engineer who passed a gig tape of Di Meola’s playing to a colleague of Corea’s. Di Meola’s phone rang a few days later, and in a matter of days he was tapped to take over the guitarist chair in the highly influential outfit that, along with Weather Report and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, fairly invented jazz-rock fusion.
“We had three days of rehearsals in New York City before we played a sold-out Carnegie Hall,” Di Meola recalled earlier this week. “I felt like a baby in the water who had to sink or swim. I was scared out of my mind.”
Forty-five years later, not much frightens the guitarist, not after the three landmark recordings with RTF led to a career as a solo artist that launched in 1976 with Land of the Midnight Sun, featuring both Di Meola’s devastating skills and the Latin-tinged compositions that would become a hallmark of his career in contemporary music. Later accomplishments include the superstar acoustic guitar trio with McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia, another trio with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and former RTF bassist Stanley Clarke, work with a plethora of pop stars opera’s Pavarotti, not to mention nearly universal critical acclaim, plus three gold albums out of more than 30 in total, and more than six million in record sales worldwide.
Di Meola leads his current band in concert at the Lobero Theatre in a program focused on arrangements of the Beatles, Piazzolla, and his own compositions on Wednesday, September 25.
Q. What has fueled your world music curiosity over the years?
A. I grew up right outside of New York City and on any given night there was always a wide choice of great music to check out. I used to see lots of rock and jazz, and country influence in my teenage years. And I’d been playing since I was nine, and knew theory and could read music. So when I landed the most challenging guitar chair possible, I just kept learning and exploring, and I still am. I enjoy having a sensitivity to all kinds of music, particularly all the different Latin ones, and the way that we blend them with improvisational jazz and elements of rock and classical. I’m somewhere in a gray zone. I’m not a rock star, not really an old school jazz guy. It’s niche-ville. But the people who like it really like it. And whatever impact we made in the ‘70s has carried me through.
What led you to make 2013’s Beatles tribute album All Your Life? And how did you pick the songs?
I just worked with what felt good on the guitar. A lot of their music was rich with harmony – all have great melodies, of course – but I didn’t realize how much there was to work with from that harmonic standpoint. When I added my sensibilities or whatever it is I do with syncopation, I just broke up the arpeggios in the harmonies or melodies and did my own thing in a rhythmic way… It turned out I did some of the arranging while I was renting a house in the Hamptons next door to Paul McCartney, and I got to talk to him about what I was doing. And then being able to record at Abbey Road – on the same floor, same equipment that the Beatles worked with – was one of the great moments of my life. I felt like a kid at Disneyland every day.
I understand there’s a follow up in the works.
I just finished Volume 2, which is more of a big production. The first was mostly solo guitar with just a few overdubs. This is me playing all the percussion, bass, drums – everything except string and brass. I’m knocked out with it. I think it’s a great record.
Your latest album, Opus, has been called very uplifting, which I heard you attribute to have a new, happy family life. Did you write about specific situations and feelings? And is contentment as much of a motivator as misery.
Actually I was worried about that. I wasn’t happy when was writing for so long before this, and good stuff always came out. I was concerned that being in a new relationship with a new baby girl, in a wonderful space in my life, would make it hard to write. But I disproved that whole theory. The record feels like an evolution – you don’t have to be miserable to create, or even alone, which is how I always wrote before. It’s just fantastic.
Impro Theatre Takes on Shakespeare
It’s a good thing that Dean Noble, Elings Park’s new executive director, has a lot of experience with improv comedy. That skill came in handy when illness forced the late cancellation of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Lit Moon scheduled for this weekend at Godric Grove at Elings. With things as up in the air as the tethered gondolas at last weekend’s inaugural Elings Park Balloon & Wine Festival, Noble turned quickly to Impro Theatre, the long-form improv company whose founders are old colleagues and friends from Noble’s days at LA ComedySportz and elsewhere.
Presto! Shakespeare in the Park is saved, albeit as a single night of Shakespeare UnScripted, Impro’s spontaneously created play in the Bard’s unmistakable style. After soliciting suggestions from the audience, the company employs Shakespeare’s poetic language, imagery, and innuendo to fashion an evening-length work that even Will himself might have loved. Forsooth, the “fake Shakespeare” play might just be funnier than the fairies in the forest that had been originally slated to populate the open-air stage at the intimate amphitheater in Godric Grove.
We caught up with Dan O’Connor, Impro Theatre’s producing artistic director who previously co-founded Los Angeles Theatresports and BATS Improv in San Francisco, who with Brian Lohmann has been co-directing Shakespeare UnScripted since it began back in 1999.
Q. It seems kind of daunting to create an entirely new play every night. How do you not fall into the trap of clichés or saying “verily” every minute?
A. It’s an homage, not a parody. It’s not like a sketch comedy where we add “eth” to the end of every word. We get in shape by rehearsing real scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The idea is to delve into everything from iambic pentameter to blank verse, and looking at aspects from an academic and exhaustive study. One of our warmups we do is improvising a sonnet. Recently we’ve been looking at the Italian comedies, which are rich with love stories, clowns and other characters. It’s a real play. All of us went to drama school, and have done Shakespeare on stage; we’re trying to bring that level of professionalism to fake Shake.
How many suggestions do you need to get the show going?
Just one – usually an image from nature, which we use it as a metaphor, or maybe an idea of what just happened in a Shakespearean world, like a king dying or someone getting married. Then after intermission, once we’ve created all the characters, the audience gets to pick which ones they want to see start the second half. That makes sure we can’t plan or connive what happens during the break. And they usually pick the two most opposite characters, of course.
Any chance we’ll see some references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to satisfy those who bought tickets in advance?
No. We can’t. We never know what the show is going to be. So we can’t do an homage to any play or a scene because for this type of improv – unscripted theater – any kind of planning creates chaos. If I want to do a character like Puck or Oberon, the other people on stage wouldn’t realize it and then it doesn’t work at all. So you have to follow the expression to surrender your agenda. Having it be different every night is what makes it exciting. The whole point is to never repeat anything we’ve ever done before. That way every show is like opening night.
Shakespeare UnScripted performs at 5 pm on Sunday, September 22, at Elings Park. Tickets cost $23 general, $18 for children, seniors and students. Visit www.elingspark.org/events-at-the-park.
Meanwhile, IMPROVology – the Santa Barbara Zoo’s side-splitting science-meets-comedy show that features two animal experts, comedy skits, songs, silliness and such by Impro Theatre, which Noble founded in 2015 and hosted while serving as the zoo’s marketing director – has its second show in its new home at the Lobero Theatre on October 25, with future dates set for February 20 and June 18, 2020.
Outings to Ojai
The Topa Mountain MusicFest, which takes place at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl from 1-10 pm on Saturday, September 21, features a roster of singer-songwriters familiar to Santa Barbara through Sings Like Hell, SOhO and elsewhere. Brett Dennan, Marc Brousseau, the Mother Hips, the Brian Titus Trio with the Brambles, Timmy Curran Band, Quincy Coleman with Shane Alexander and others will share the amphitheater’s stage in a concert that benefits nonprofits seeking to find a cure for cancer. Tickets cost $25-$100. Visit https://topamountainmusicfest.org.
Pianist Tomer Gewirtzman kicks off the seventh season of Chamber on the Mountain, the classical recital series at Logan House at the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai. The young artist who claimed a number of competitions back in the 2013-14 season has been praised for his “formidable virtuosity, bravura technical mastery, stylistic sensitivity and ebullient passion”. Gewirtzman will perform Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 9, No. 3, and Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, at 3 pm on Sunday, September 22. Tickets cost $25. Call (805) 646-9951 or visit www.ChamberOnTheMountain.com.
Brett Young’s pathway to Major League Baseball was cut short after the high school star pitcher who turned down draft overtures from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Minnesota Twins suffered a career ending elbow injury during his senior year in college in 2003. Turning instead to singing, another early passion, Young released some independent singles and albums in Los Angeles before moving to Nashville in the mid-2010s. In 2016, his second single on a major label, “In Case You Didn’t Know,” reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart and was certified triple platinum. Arriving as quickly as a high-90s fastball, Young’s self-titled first studio album a year later debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart and spawned two more hit singles in “Like I Loved You” and “Mercy.” Last year’s Ticket to L.A. did even better, debuting at No. 1, spawning a No. 1 single in “Here Tonight,” and earning Young the Academy of Country Music’s award for best New Male Vocalist of the Year. Your ticket to see the rising star’s best pitch will land you a seat for Young’s 8 pm show at the Chumash Casino Resort’s Samala Showroom on Friday, September 20.
Coastal Cleanup Day
The annual international day of volunteer action is a chance to come together as a community to become part of the “solution to ocean pollution” and make a dent in the human impact on one of our most precious natural resources. It might not seem like much to pick up trash for a few hours at a beach, but consider that at last year’s event, the 1,000-plus official Santa Barbara County volunteers picked up 3,530 pounds of trash and nearly half a ton of recyclables. For this year’s Cleanup slated for 9 am to 12 noon on Saturday, September 21, there are 27 sites from Carpinteria to Guadalupe (including Montecito’s popular Butterfly Beach), each with its own Beach Captain who will provide necessary instructions and supplies – although all are encouraged to bring your own reusable gloves, bags or buckets. Mobile phone junkies can even install the Clean Swell app on their phones to record the trash they collect. Info at (805) 884-0459 x16 or www.ExploreEcology.org/Coastal-Cleanup-Day or www.facebook.com/SBCoast