The Saturday evening concert would feature two prominent virtuosos of the guitar in performance for the convention audience. The first act was a solo venture with new-comer Ben Lacy, a guitarist who seemingly has redefined the two-handed contapuntal solo style of guitar performance which Stanley Jordan and Tuck Andress brought to attention almost two decades earlier. This was a fitting introduction to the World Sinfonia group because Al Di Meola produced the first release of the highly innovative Jordan, which shows his flair for not only performing but producing great music as well. Lacy bedazzled the audience with full band arrangements of Stevie Wonder’s "I Wish" and "Sir Duke," along with "Tax Man" by the Beatles, original compositions and a rousing encore of the eastern laced "Kasmir" of Led Zeppelin. The screaming crowd was very warm after witnessing such a powerful musician and really enjoyed the choice of material he performed. Somehow, I got the feeling he would be back later in the evening.
Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia entered the stage with loud applause as they performed fire-breathing versions of their latest release ‘Flesh On Flesh’ and a number of beautiful melodic ballads. The world music flair was exotic and powerful as Al Di weaved legato melodies with punctuated burst of rhythmic interplay that contrasted well throughout the evening. "Libertango," a composition of Astor Piazolla would introduce the band to us as a tempo pushing introduction. The world-class band comprised of veteran members Mario Parmisano of Argentina on piano and keyboards along with Gumbi Ortiz of the Bronx on congas and percussion. Newer members included the legendary Ernie Watts of Milwaukee on drums and dumbek, Alejandro Santos on various flutes and pan flute with another Alejandro on bass, both Al’s from Argentina as well. The Sinfonia unit was very tight and performed exciting solo and background sections.
The percussion of Ortiz and the spirited drumming of Watts was very impressive as the interplay of rhythm would be the catalyst for Di Meola’s "Mutola" improvising exploits and interaction with the percussion section. Watts pushed the group and kept immaculate time and showed why his inventive drum style has been used with Ramsey Lewis among others for decades.
One of the highlights of any Di Meola performance is the rhythmic duel between Gumbi Ortiz and Di Meola together as a duet. Gumbi Ortiz is a veteran of the first World Sinfonia and has Cuban / Puerto Rican roots which are evident in his animated rhythmic style. Ortiz is a master of congas, cajone, bird whistle and anything he contacts with his hands! Resembling a cat and mouse game of a rhythmic throw down, the two compliment eachother with their fiery playing and ability to push on another to a higher level of rhythmic performance every night. This break is a hallmark of a Di Meola show and shows the plethora of different arrangements in the World Sinfonia program.
The music from "Flesh On Flesh" was very melodic, romantic and programmatically festive. Perhaps, this feel is because the collection was done "live" in the studio, so interplay and visual communication are at a creative and improvisational peek. Di Meola is happy about the CD and his Sinfonia groups performance on the new project as he explains, "I think the energy and excitement is several notches up, and the fact that I’m playing electric (mixed with acoustic) is a real plus. That element, along with the driving rhythms and drums, is very exciting." Al Di also utilized his midi setup that let him go from ethnic instruments, woodwinds and acoustic / electric mixes with ease. Di Meola dazzled the audience with his never ending palette of tonal colors and melodies that kept coming from his streaming guitars. In true Al Di fashion, he also fired up some incredible unisons and solo burst that kept the audience on the edge of their seats and screaming for more!
"Innamorata," "Zona Desperata," "Saffire Soleil," and "Fugata" were among the new compositions performed. "Flesh On Flesh," featured spirited acoustic tones, searing electric tones and beautiful flute phrasing with driving percussion from the title cut. The Egberto Gismonti piece, "Meninas" was a subdued piece that resulted in the sensitive performance of an acoustic Di Meola and Parmisano on piano, the sublime background and austere melody was a tender moment and showed the great depth of the program. Di Meola said he always wanted to perform a Gismonti piece and this song reminds him of his two daughter’s when he is touring. Al explains, "Meninas," in Portuguese is the word for "girls." It is one of my all-time favorite Gismonti compositions. I felt the urge to call Egberto in Brazil and ask him for the chart, especially for this recording. When hearing this incredible melody on long trips, I had always gotten an intense feeling, missing my two beautiful daughters, Oriana and Valentina."
The piano and keyboard performances of long time music collaborator Mario Parmisano, are nothing short of surreal and beautifully orchestrated as his "touch" is perfect for the music at all times. Mario’s use of space and touch are complemented by his ability to fire off intense unisons and pushing velocity in his solos yet, maintaining a romantic flair from his Argentinean roots. For the long term Di Meola fan, some of the music is reminiscent of his Cielo E Terra (1985) which was esoteric and classically inspired with a touch of Ralph Towner, Gismonti and Keith Jarrett essence to boot. "I felt I had to make that record," Di Meola explained. After selling millions of records and countless tours, Al felt he had to write music that reached deeper into his creativity. " The best writing is done when you’re not bothered with things and you really are able to woodshed- no phones, nobody around." Di Meola has always followed his instincts which has always worked well based on the success he has had with his varied projects.
‘The Grande Passion’ utilized orchestra, the electric projects offer power and tonal colors and the Acoustic Super Trio and the Rite of Strings offer full acoustic tones. ‘Flesh On Flesh’ offers the best of both worlds as Al Di dances between acoustic and electric realms with ease and no lack of compositional genius! "You need to advance your creativity, if you don’t, all that’s left is(Las)Vegas." Di Meola explains what inspired the energy on ‘Flesh’ -"We tracked ‘Flesh On Flesh’ mostly live, and we really kicked some butt." "We captured that certain magic you can only get when everyone is playing together in one space and all the sounds blend together and bleed into the microphones. Sadly, it seems unusual for guys to play together in the studio these days - at least judging by the records I’m hearing." To the crowds joy, the World Sinfonia would perform Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy as an encore with electric tones searing like the fusion hey day Al Di helped trailblaze with Chick Corea’s Grammy - winning group, Return To Forever in the 70’s. The screaming audience wouldn’t leave with out another piece of "flesh" from Al Di and an encore was eminent.
Al Di and the World Sinfonia performed pieces from Piazolla, Gismonti, Chick Corea and Al’s very intuitive compositional pen. The beautiful, exotic flute textures and melodies by Alejandro Santos was a special touch to the brilliant soul searching compositions throughout the evening. With the various duets and band timbres throughout the show, a listener was treated to a whole cornucopia of soundscapes through the evening. For everyone in attendance another encore was eminent.
For a final encore Di Meola announced that he was going to do something he hadn’t planned to do - a duet with Ben Lacy. The duo would perform an impromptu version of ‘Spain’ which was a staple of the Return To Forever set list. Di Meola joked that, "With Ben’s (Lacy’s) 3 parts and my part, we should make a pretty good quartet!" The crowd roared even before Lacy’s amp was plugged up and ready to go. Starting with a percussive rhythm pulse and chordal sequences, Lacy set the tune up for Al to play the head and the duo exchanged soloing back and fourth using rhythmic burst and legato melodies, chock full of searing breakneck shred soloing which complimented each other very well. The melodic output of Di Meola is as incredible as his chops and guitar playing expertise. Al’s ability to combine lush chords, rapid right hand picking with long-flowing legato lines, is a treat for the senses. The audience response was fever pitched and the two dragons showed the conventioneers and the others in the audience why the Sheldon picked such fiery, unique artist for the Guitar show. After the fret burning fireworks, a reception was given upstairs where Al was signing his CD Al Di was gracious and very interested in the fans comments about the performance and the new music. While Al greeted fans, a harp guitarist named Tom Shinness from Nashville performed for the gathering. A great wind down to a great show at the midnight hour. For sound bites of Al Di Meola’s ‘Flesh On Flesh’ and to sign up for an auto graphed copy of the latest Telarc disk, check out The days events were full of excitement and energy. Thanks to the Sheldon and the artistry of Al Di Meola and Ben Lacy, the Saturday night in St. Louis was a night to remember for a long time to come! Bravo! Fine.
The Sheldon Concert Hall is synonymous with superlative musical performance - and a historical treasure to St. Louis as a performance hall for world-class artists and as a cultural, educational sanctuary for the public. Designed by the same architect that transformed St. Louis for the 1904 Worlds Fair, the oak wood trim and stained glass windows give the feel of a church sanctuary. The resonant nature of the room is what attracts jazz artists such as; Al Di Meola, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, John McLaughlin and Dee Dee Bridgewater just to mention a few. There is always a great art exhibit as well. I was able to catch the photo gallery which featured Linda McCartney’s Sixties: Portrait of an Era collection. When in the St. Louis area check out the art and music at the Sheldon Concert Hall, if you have a music taste that ranges from blues, jazz, eclectic folk, classical and choral . you wont be denied at the Sheldon!