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Al Di Meola's World Sinfonia

Approaching St. Louis and its famous arch from the East is like taking a fresh breath of crisp winter air. I was feeling a sense of anticipation for the concert I was about to see that evening. Given the images that St. Louis is famous for; the St. Louis Arch, Charles Lindbergh's plane the Spirit of St. Louis, the defending World Champion Rams, the world's home run leader and the Busch family brewery. One could only conclude that the site of the 1904 World's Fair should feature Al Di Meola's World Sinfonia almost 100 years later at the historic Sheldon Concert Hall, once known as the Ethical Society of St. Louis, with great adoration.

Al Di, as he is affectionately referred to by his fans, is a music visionary who ventures into both acoustic and electronic music realms with passion that is equally tempered in finesse, elegance and "in your face" energy and bravado. The World Sinfonia is an aural buffet of tones, rhythmical interaction of the highest order including musicians from around the globe. Mario Parmisano is featured on piano and keyboards and hails from Argentina and has been with Di Meola for 8 years. Gilad Dobresky is a master percussionist from Israel and can perform on any percussion instrument from ancient times to the present from the Middle East to America. Gumbi Ortiz, a veteran of the first World Sinfonia, hails from the Bronx but has Cuban / Puerto Rican roots and is a master of the congas, bird whistle and anything he contacts with his hands. Mr. Ortiz is without a doubt a very colorful and animated performer especially when he and Al Di Meola engage in their rhythm sparring that is a fun filled audience favorite based on the reaction of the crowd to the ESP both performers seem to have during their interaction. Although a native of New Jersey, Al Di Meola is a master Jazz musician who is a protégé of Astor Piazzolla, Chick Corea and his own amalgamation of melodic world music that makes his lyrical and percussive music statements identify with him by name. In fact, Al uses a technique which he calls "Mutola" that consist of the right hand palm muting the strings while the skin and fingernail of the right index finger hit the string along with the pick. This technique produces a melodic drum or marimba like note that helps project the sound and cut through a group and adds to his high velocity passages.

My first glimpse of the Sheldon gave me a great impression of the event that was going to take place in just a few hours. I walked into the concert hall while the sound technicians were constructing the stage and saw the beautiful recessed inlet where the performance was to take place. I walked around the room that has a capacity of 725 seats perfect for the intimacy of the venue. The high ceilings, oak wood trim, and stadium seating with wooden seats gave off a great vibe for the festivities that were going to occur. The adjacent art gallery was featuring abstract works and vintage black and white photography of legendary jazz musicians from the bebop and cool jazz periods. When walking downstairs to the bottom gallery, I was greeted by a hallway, which had pictures of many legendary performers that had previously graced the stage at the Sheldon. Some of the artists included; Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, Diana Krall and many others. I returned to the hall because Di Meola and company were driving from Chicago to get to the venue and I was anxious to greet them.

The first musician I saw was Mario who immediately sat down at the Steinway piano and started to check the tuning and playability of the keys. He then went into a very beautiful arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby" that was very tender and had lush chord pads for the melody. He was very happy with the piano and was all smiles. The next musician I saw was Gumbi Ortiz and the rest of the group. Gumbi positioned his congas and began to play tunes like Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and other songs giving everyone a little entertainment before setting up his microphone for his upcoming performance. Gilad began to take an array of drums, cymbals, water sticks, chimes, and gourds and proceeded to fill his rack with the equipment and get a sound. The last person to enter was Al Di Meola and he was accompanied by his sound tech that started to set up the Roland GR-33 synth and the VG-88 that would make up the electronic elements of his sound. Al was accompanied by his daughter Oriana who is 12 or 13 years old and his assistant that helps with selling the photographs and music books from Al's albums. After leaving for a short while he returned to warm up and began to play his black signature model Ovation acoustic guitar and walk around the stage to get a feel of the stage and sound. He was smiling and talking with the members of his band and I found him to be very relaxed. Al said he was impressed with the room and the art galleries and began to play quotes from some of his compositions, which were quite demanding and he was playing very fluid. I reflected on my own life and how I also became a guitar player. Seeing Johnny Cash dressed in black with a matching guitar and cowboy boots made me attracted to the instrument. The same was true at the present with Al Di Meola, the man in black revisited!

The stage was dimmed and ready for action as Al Di and his World Sinfonia friends joined him for the opening number "Libertango" penned by Astor Piazzolla. The tango had a robust feel and featured some incredible rhythm guitar from Al pushing the time and a crisp piano performance from Mario. The melody almost parallels the theme from Love Story and features a bandoneon / guitar solo from Al and great interplay between the accented sections. The second tune was "The Grande Passion" which is a modal piece that had a great slow burning effect, starting slow and gradually moving into a strutting tango section and getting more and more intense until the end. Al is featured on the panpipe patch of his Roland guitar synth and plays beautiful melodic variations, and using dynamics to accent his use of the space. The airy legato tone of his soloing was well blended with the piano pads Mario was laying down and some great accented percussion and birdcalls from Gumbi and Gilad. After some loud applause the group moved into the third tune "Azzura" / "Big Sky Azzura" featured on the 'Guitar Trio 111' and the 'Infinite Desire' CD's. Al and company are totally warmed up and hot out of the gates on this number as it begins as a textured ballad with an ethereal opening and moving into a sizzling, break neck unison sequence. Al Di and Mario switch between melodic breaks and unisons on a chromatic passage almost like the "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and they reach a fantastic climas that leaves everyone in the crowd spellbound by their sheer virtuosity and timing on the stop time figures.

Al gave the crowd a big smile and said he had a great feeling about the hall and the energy in the air. Al crossed his chest and went into "Misterio" the tune that opens his new CD. Although the band did not include a full orchestra, this piece and others from the 'Grande Passion' sounded full with the use of the keyboards and guitar synth (Roland GR-33, VG-88) and incredible interweaving percussion with no need for a bass. The tanbur and oboe were the next tones on Al's pallet as he moved from each section and infused flamenco and Moorish melodies over a thick pad of chords from Mario. Al Di won a Grammy with a jazz group known as Return to Forever and the title cut from the award winning album 'No Mystery'. This piece featured him in flight on the virtuoso in which he took a long solo using his "Mutola" picking attack for lightning fast runs and extended melodies. The Sinfonia band seemed to feed off of the solos and the interchange in the solo section was rhythmically astounding. After blasting the ascending run at the end of the tune the audience was very loud with its applause. Di Meola said he was used to a boisterous crowd in Europe but was surprised to see this reaction from an American crowd. Al was overjoyed by the response to his new music. He then moved into the next tune, a solemn ballad called "Soledad" another of the three Astor Piazzolla selections from 'The Grande Passion' CD. "Soledad" was in direct contrast to the fire-breathing piece performed just before it, with an intricate melody beautifully performed as a duo with acoustic guitar and acoustic piano.

The second set featured Al in a solo performance of his "Orient Blue Suite" with 3 sections. Al's ability to combine lush chords, rapid right hand picking with long-flowing legato lines, is a treat for the senses. The programmatic nature of his compositions offers a very animated listening experience where you can see what you hear and travel away into a dreamy state of bliss of Asiatic imagery. The melodic output of Al Di Meola is as incredible as is his chops and guitar playing expertise. Listening to a solo performance is the true test of any instrumentalists skill and Al Di proves he can perform great music and compose as well as he plays his instrument, turning a single instrument into an orchestra.

During most of Al Di Meola's career he has been a great paradox of himself, much like his former music mentor Chick Corea. He is known as one of the fastest and fluid guitarists in the world yet; he performs some of the most intricate beautiful legato lines ever heard. He is a great composer that can change his sound, energy and technique with each new project and push himself and his bands to new heights. He can still retain his trademark sound and keep adding techniques to the art of guitar playing like his marimba-like "Mutola" palm muting, free flowing tremolos, cascading scalar playing and unique scale choices. Probably the largest dichotomy of Al Di's style is his ability to pioneer music in both acoustic and electric settings. For instance, he can perform in an acoustic group such as Rite of Strings, The Acoustic Trio and his current World Sinfonia, then turn full circle and go full electric. Al has been a guitar synth practitioner since the mid-seventies and has helped in the research and development of the cutting edge Roland GR synths and VG (virtual guitar modeling) units using them in every way his imagination takes him. No matter what format Al performs in there are 3 indisputable elements. To coin a title of one of his compositions "Passion, Grace and Fire", you can be sure that a great performance is at hand as is the case at the Shelton in St. Louis.

The World Sinfonia band returned for the second half of their show and the choice was a great, moody tune. "Beyond the Mirage" which is another great example of Di Meola's slow burning pieces, was included in the last acoustic trio from '96. The mirage opens with a legato, ethereal introduction that develops into a passionate rhythmic interplay and motific development. The band was shinning bright on this tune and kept a vibrant energy. They used great dynamics on the grooving section and the final unison was a trademark work of perfection from Al and Mario. The crowd roared again as the tune ended and the Sinfonia went into the 5th selection from 'The Grande Passion' play list titled "Double Concerto" which featured Al on the bandoneon (accordion sound) solo patch of his synth adding an open air café romance to his melodic lovers piece. The underlying dance pulse evident throughout "Opus in Green" would offer up the longest cut from 'The Grande Passion' at over 10 minutes on the CD. The intricate use of percussion on this piece was of special note with Gumbi mastering the triangle and Gilad using his Middle Eastern rhythmic talents and instruments like the dumbek to interplay with the cascades of melodies from Al Di and Mario on keyboards.

Al and the Sinfonia left the stage and were applauded by a cheering crowd that chanted "more" and began reveling for more music. After about 3 minutes Al arrived with Mario and performed "Oblivion" in a duo and then the whole group entered for an incredible reading of "Libertango" the piece they opened the concert with. This version was very spirited, pushing the time forward with a heavily grooving and romantic tango. Al used his guitar synth and acoustic sound in unison for his soloing and he traded 8's with Mario who displayed his world class Argentinean tango chops on piano. The band really went over the top when they used a cycling accelerando to keep pushing the tension higher and higher like two lovers in a passionate dance that reaches it's climax. There is no doubt that Al Di Meola is more controlled with his powerful guitar playing than twenty years ago, but the energy and intensity is even stronger than his 'Tour De Force' days. When the final note was played the crowd went nuts and the audience filled the main gallery to meet Al Di and his band-mates for autographs and pictures. Al Di was very happy and smiling as the fans wished him well and wanted him to sign their new CD's and pictures. The concert lasted approximately 2 ½ hours, not counting the intermission. The show was well balanced with the perfect volume level complimenting the power of the music. The Sinfonia group was very accommodating to the fans. Al sold a large number of music books and his CD's, especially the 'Winter Nights' and 'The Grande Passion'. This took approximately an hour and knowing the band had just driven from Chicago, I couldn't help marvel at their uplifting spirits and intense energy level. Al was very gracious and kind. I know that my next encounter with Al Di Meola will be just as fun and astonishing as my experience at The Sheldon Hall in St. Louis, November 11th, 2000. Thank you for the great concert and invigorating music, as well as the exceptional performance by the entire group, Al! Viva Al Di! Fine.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Al Di Meola
  • Subtitle: The Grande Passion' in St. Louis
  • Venue: Sheldon Concert Hall
  • City State Country: St. Louis, MO, USA
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