Al Di Meola – Live at Variety Playhouse 2015

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I’d been looking forward to this show since it was first announced.  I had seen Di Meola in 2010 and 2011, but both of those were primarily acoustic guitar sets, reflecting a Latin/world music influence that he’s been working within for a couple of decades. 

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This tour, though, was primarily electric guitar and featuring songs from his early solo career when he delivered some of jazz fusion’s best albums, including Elegant Gypsy, Casino and Splendido Hotel.  It was this era of Di Meola that I favor, and this is probably the tour for which many of his fans have been hoping since the mid ‘80’s.

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From these three albums, he played 9-10 songs, including 5 off of Elegant Gypsy.  He also played a couple of acoustic songs and two new ones.  His band included longtime percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, keyboardist Phillipe Saisse (who recorded with him during that era), energetic bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and all but hidden drummer, Joel Taylor.  This is only the 6th stop of the tour, and the band sounded tight and appeared energetic.

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This is instrumental music, but Di Meola is extremely personable with chat between the songs.  I’d wager that most of those assembled had seen him before, and his winning banter played well for the sold out venue.  Also, being from New Jersey, a couple of his quips sure sounded like Frank Sinatra.

The first set included perhaps 7 songs, which were enjoyable on the one hand but, for someone who prefers rock music, they were also frustrating in that whenever a groove was established, the songs tended to halt or shift in a different direction.  Jazz composition… I get it.  They’re good songs, but for those unfamiliar, they keep you guessing what is coming next rather than a simple climb to a grand finale.  Di Meola also played a short acoustic set, at one point playfully trading licks with percussionist Ortiz. 

After a 20 minute break, the song selections had more flow and really enthused the crowd, particularly with “Midnight Tango,” “Babylon” (a new song from his forthcoming CD that also emphasizes electric guitar), and the closer, “Egyptian Danza.”

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It should be noted that prior to playing, the announcer indicated no audio recording, no video, and no cameras… Variety Playhouse essentially has no policy (I’m not encouraging a change) on recording except when the artist demands it, but I was still expecting the mention of cameras to include “no flash” photography.  This was disappointing, but my son and I were well positioned in the 4th row, and, all things considered, it is nice to sit for a show without trying to snap some pictures… despite the perfect venue lighting for it.

Prior to “Elegant Gypsy,” Di Meola said something similar to, “Okay, now we’re going to mix things up a bit like all those rock acts.  Stand up and come on down to the front.”  It didn’t take a lot of encouragement.

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Through the evening, he had been no stranger for expressively playing his guitar, with twisting movements, partial windmills, and other guitar “poses” usually following a trademark flurry of notes.   With a more responsive crowd, though, he was on.  Continuing into the encore of “Race with Devil on a Spanish Highway,” the crowd ate it up, waving arms and, often with iPhones, Nikons, and such.  That’s why you, gentle reader, get pictures.  He has no shortcomings with rock posturing for a crowd… hopefully he doesn’t lose his jazz union card for it.

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The above was taken on the last song, possibly “Chiquilin de Bachin,” where he’s soloing while reading music.  In the other two years, he played while reading music as well.  It just strikes me oddly not that so many notes require that he do so, but that he can keep up with it at the speed that he plays.  There’s no power chords, here.  All in all, a triumphant evening.

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As a footnote, the opener, Nashville resident Sabrina was very enjoyable, with her fluid guitar work, relational lyrics and soulful Tracy Chapman/Joan Armatrading force of voice.

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