Al’s new record, Flesh On Flesh, finds him and the group in the heart of Miami in one of it’s most reputable studios. The recording also features innovators such as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, adding to the spice of the mix. Di Meola joined us by phone to discuss the process of recording Flesh On Flesh, the cultural and environmental influences which inspired it, and the state of instrumental music today.
JazzReview: Tell us about the new record. What’s transpired the past couple of years that’s inspired this record? While it’s distinctly yours, there are a lot of new ideas here.
Al Di Meola : Well it think there’s perhaps further development in the thought process that went on with the music of musicians of Cuba, Gonzalo’s fusion group from Havana, that whole scene down there in south Florida. I wanted to submerge everybody in that world and write the music and record and do the whole process right in Miami. What’s different as well is that it’s a whole band playing live in the studio, as opposed to the last record, which was primarily done acoustically with an orchestra. This was a nice process because we got to rehearse in a facility and go right to a club to test the material.
JazzReview: How much time did you spend down in South Florida previous to the recording?
Al Di Meola : The writing process was probably a month process, and then we went down and rehearsed for about 4-5 days, and then immediately went to a club and played 3 nights, 2 sets per night for the purpose of breaking the music in, a special invitation type thing. It really elevated the music up a notch.
In fact, it was a dream of mine to record at Criteria, because the history of the place is so great. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve wanted to record there, a lot of amazing artists and records made there.
JazzReview: How did you hook up with Gonzalo Rubalcaba to record this album?
Al Di Meola : We had met a bunch of times on the road, initially my percussionist, Gumbi Ortiz, turned me on to Gonzalo’s work and introduced me also to some fusion stuff he was doing in Havana that amazing, that no one really knows about. He seems to find these obscure records of great fusion and jazz musicians as well from Cuba that no one seems to be able to find in record stores. Since that time, which is about 10 years or so, I’ve run across Gonzalo on the road or have gone to see him play a number of times, and we had the opportunity a few years ago to play together in Germany. I was always looking for an opportunity for us to play again.
JazzReview: It’s a great match up, especially on that first track where you guys get to trade. I haven’t heard him play Rhodes much, mostly acoustic piano. What it his decision or yours to have him play primarily on the Rhodes?
Al Di Meola : It was his decision, which was amazing, because I only thought of him with the acoustic sound. When we were recording, he said "Hey man, it would be great to use a Fender Rhodes on this", and I was like "You think so?". He said "Check it out, check it out." So he played and I liked it, and he really liked it. We had the ability, since it was an electric keyboard, to change the sound later, but when we did, he made an indication that he if he heard a different sound, he would have played it differently. So we stuck with that sound and it’s cool. Underneath all of that, we have Mario playing the basic part on grand piano.
JazzReview: Tell me a bit about how you personally feel in that this has differed from recordings and projects you’ve done in the past.
Al Di Meola : The difference was the studio. I really wanted to get the best studio and engineer to capture the performances than to record in my own studio under different conditions, different equipment. I wanted to get into a larger studio with a big analog board and work with a fine ProTools [recording software] team, and just do it up. That was my main goal and also to move away from my home up north and go down to my place down in Florida and just relocate and get into a different environment, and it really paid off. There was no fooling around; we had the whole band in a great environment, great scene and great weather. It all shows, plus I wrote the music down there so I was thinking along those lines.
JazzReview: I like the new rendition of Senor Mouse on the record, and I had read that you performed the drum part on that. Ever thought of actually taking on a different instrument, just for the heck of it?
Al Di Meola : Well, I don’t know to do a whole record of just drums [laughs]. If someone asked me to play percussion or drums on their record it wouldn’t be a problem.
JazzReview: You’ve probably been asked this before, but was the guitar your first instrument?
Al Di Meola : Drums were my first love, and then guitar. My first instrument before all of that actually was the accordion, but I don’t play it well. I immediately switched because it was at a time when it was considered really corny, you know.
JazzReview: Probably more so in the states, because there is great tango and Latin music that makes wonderful use of the accordion/bandoneon.
Al Di Meola : Oh, I love that sound.
JazzReview: Unfortunately everyone equates the accordion with Polka in the States.
Al Di Meola : Yeah, a lot of the Polish Polka and syrupy Italian stuff. It was like all of the Polish and Italian kids had to take the accordion. Then the electric guitar exploded and everyone wanted to play the electric guitar, so the accordion went right out the door.
JazzReview: In terms of the women, I think the guitar works much better, don’t you?
Al Di Meola : Oh yeah, you don’t pick up women with an accordion [laughs]. Not even today.
JazzReview: In retrospect, even though you’ve tackled such diversity throughout your career, is there anything you’ve thought of or longed to do that you may incorporate into a future project? Maybe something left of center for you?
Al Di Meola : Right off the bat, I can’t say, there are many things, but I guess the project I’m working on now, which is a pop record.
Al Di Meola : Yeah, I mean, it’s real R&B/Pop.
JazzReview: You stepping up to the mic?
Al Di Meola : I’ m not. I have guest singers on each track. Part of my background is Pop music and R&B.
JazzReview: Anything more you can tell us about it at this point?
Al Di Meola : Not too much, but I can say it’s a project that’s going to hit people broadside. They’re not going to be expecting it.
JazzReview: You’ve always really managed to really combine so many different styles well, particularly with your Latin roots. How do you feel about a lot of the new stuff that’s exploded in recent years, particularly the Latin jazz uproar and of course the huge scene of Latin pop stars crossing over? Anything that stands out to you that really is a credit to its Latin heritage?
Al Di Meola : Well there’s some really interesting stuff coming from this guy Kiki Santander. He was working with Gloria Estefan, and he’s also a writer. He’s working like 20 projects at once, all the time. Surprisingly, we’re on tour in Russia and my percussionist was watching TV in Moscow, and he saw this Latin singer come on and do a kind of a Bobby McFerrin thing with clave and he said, "man what is that?" It was a Latin guy in a video doing this thing. Imagine Bobby McFerrin with clave! We went and found a record in the States from this guy [first name uncertain] Gutierrez. This guy in Miami, Kiki Santander, produced him. I knew a lot of people in Miami, so I asked around if anyone knew this guy I bought the record and it was good. I freaked out! The production is killer. I called the guy up, and was unsure if he knew me or not, just to congratulate him on the work. That was real inspiration, because so many records in the instrumental jazz market in the US are going straight down, like a rocket.
JazzReview: It’s because we don’t have real radio, or television. The audience in instrumental jazz is getting older, having more financial obligations, and technology has changed so much, so it’s like "What’s going on?".
Al Di Meola : It’s unfortunate, because many of the mainstream jazz stations, not to be confused wit ‘smooth’ jazz stations, are taking the same road unfortunately. From what I hear, they are taking on a heavier vocal format, abandoning the newer more innovative instrumental stuff.
JazzReview: Yeah, stations like CD101.9 are becoming mostly vocal, right?
Al Di Meola : True. My opinion, as a result of that, I find that myself and everyone else I know is so bored with that format, that they switched to more rock, or pop stations.
JazzReview: Do you feel, despite what we’re talking about now, that the permeation of jazz is overall better across the world and in the States? In Europe they seem to always embrace jazz much more than over here.
Al Di Meola : Well, you have a scene there that was setup right around World War II from the Marshall Plan, which led to more funding for the arts. You have a lot of enthusiasts and fans that have become promoters, and they book what they like, and have access to funding. Quite the opposite here, where you have guys that have to go out of their own pocket and they book what sells.
And what sells is a direct result of TV and Radio and push from record labels. It sets up a different type of system; we don’t have real funding for the arts here, only in Classical. Jazz is not considered serious here like in Europe; In Europe they treat jazz as importantly as Classical, and it’s an American music. If we didn’t have Europe, I don’t know how we’d survive. You go over there you’re really well appreciated, and we have a large variety of venues where we can survive in. We can play churches and really fine theatres.
JazzReview: If stations were more adventurous with their programming again, they’d have more listeners. Right now, these formats [smooth jazz, commercial jazz stations] have become background music for salons and malls...and other treacherous places.
Al Di Meola : The days of people getting excited about what’s on the radio is very much over. There’s so much great music nowadays that is not getting to people. If that were to happen, you’d see venue sizes change and you’d have more listeners really interacting with the establishment.
JazzReview: I’ve found many of the best places for people looking for something different, are either obscure NPR stations, college stations or Internet radio. Take a station like WFUV [Fordham Univ. Radio 90.7 in New York] , which is really eclectic and well received.
Al Di Meola : Another savior here that’s right around the corner is satellite radio. Once they go mainstream, I hope it just blows FM radio out of the water. I have my own station on there, I’ve been told. In fact, I was just sent a satellite radio receiver to have installed I’m a friend with some people up there so I’m going to check it out. I couldn’t believe when they told me I had my own station; they even sent me the number to tune in to.
JazzReview: Wow, that’s some seriously cool stuff. Off the topic, I’m going to jump back a second; you had mentioned earlier about how Gonzalo [Rubalcaba] had talked abut playing differently wit different piano sounds. I noticed you use a variety of guitars on the record does each guitar spawn a different song for you?
Al Di Meola : Oh yeah. That is the case. It’s definitely true when you’re playing through a guitar synth, or a module. When I hear different sounds I think differently. It influences the direction and flow of your improvisation if you’re working with a different type of sound.
JazzReview: Do you have a real ‘song bird’ guitar, one that when you pick it up seems to always inspire ideas?
Al Di Meola : Yeah, I think the nylon Spanish guitar I have which I use in a lot of the newer music. It’s so warm and enveloping, and rich. It was made by Pronte Harmanos in Madrid. I use it a lot on the new Pop record as well.
JazzReview: I can’t wait to hear that. Thank you so much again for talking with us today, and I look forward to seeing you live again in New York.
Al Di Meola : Thank you; hope to see you there.