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Al Di Meola was just nine years old when the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. Seeing the band changed his life.
“That brought a lot of people to want to learn how to play the guitar,” said Di Meola, known for his lickety-split jazz-rock fusion lines with Return to Forever and on his own albums, such as Elegant Gypsy. “I was one of them.”
Fans already know Di Meola’s first nod to the Fab Four, 2013’s All Your Life: A Tribute to the Beatles, recorded at the Beatles London haunt, Abbey Road, primarily on solo acoustic guitar. On March 13, the German label earMUSIC will release a very different follow-up, Across the Universe, which features baroquely layered orchestral productions created in Di Meola’s home studio.
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Though Di Meola never saw the Beatles live, a couple of chance encounters suggest he was destined to further their legacy. When he was 19, while recording his first album with Return To Forever at the Record Plant, the guitarist looked up from the ping pong table in the hallway and realized the guy in the studio next door was John Lennon. Decades later, Di Meola met Paul McCartney, when they coincidently rented adjacent houses in the Hamptons, on Long Island.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be, I’m dreaming,’” said Di Meola, who was actually working at that very moment on a rendition of McCartney’s “Penny Lane.”
Di Meola never found out what McCartney thought about the album, but chances are he would have been tickled, and by this new effort, as well. Di Meola plays nearly a dozen different guitars on Across the Universe, as well as keyboards, bass and percussion. Eight of its 14 tracks are inspired by the highly complex, sophisticated late Beatles period, including the single “Strawberry Fields,” three songs each from The Beatles (aka “The White Album”) and Abbey Road, plus one from Magical Mystery Tour. But complexity, said the guitarist, is only half the story.
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“Sometimes, the more simple is the most beautiful,” he said. “In fact, I intentionally tried to stay closer to the melody on this record than on the first one, at the same time that I tried to extend the vibe.”
“Extend the vibe,” he does, with an impressive instrumental arsenal. From the first, arpeggiated jangle of Di Meola’s 12-string “harp guitar” on George Harrison’s hopeful testament, “Here Comes the Sun,” it’s hard to keep a smile from spreading across your face. The pleasure continues with a densely reimagined medley from the Abbey Road suite: “Golden Slumbers, “Carry That Weight” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.” John Lennon’s famous invitation to Mia Farrow’s younger sister to come out and play while they were in India, “Dear Prudence,” has Di Meola playing hand percussion, which he excels at, even capturing Ringo Starr’s famous fills from time to time, using the Cuban bass drum, the cajon. To conjure Paul’s bass playing, Di Meola uses the same model Rickenbacker McCartney used.
“Sometimes, the more simple is the most beautiful.”
“Paul’s bass playing wasn’t just good, it was fantastic,” said Di Meola. “It’s like a counter melody, almost.”
Di Meola reaches back to Rubber Soul for “Norwegian Wood,” evoking the Indian influence George Harrison brought to the band, including tabla by Amit Kavthekar. On “Mother Nature’s Son,” Di Meola’s burnished Conde Hermanos guitar shares the spotlight with his pinging Martin D18, a pairing that reappears on a harmonically jazz-rich “Yesterday.” A Logic program allowed Di Meola to recreate the famous, pulsing mellotron of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one of John Lennon’s most beautiful and haunting tunes. From Magical Mystery Tour comes “Your Mother Should Know,” invested with exquisite acoustic guitar.
For “Hey Jude,” the guitarist pulled out his punchy Les Paul with a Marshall 50 amp, which he hadn’t played since his days with Chick Corea. “I’ll Follow the Sun” gets a sexy flamenco feel and a tasty trumpet solo by Randy Brecker, and Fausto Beccalossi’s accordion adds a layer of pathos to John Lennon’s already yearning ode to his mother, “Julia.”
The only non-Beatles song on the album is the Rogers and Hammerstein ballad from Music Man, “Till There Was You,” which, Di Meola noted, Paul sang on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Di Meola. “And there are some chord changes in there you would never expect pop guys to know.”
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“Here, There and Everywhere,” from Revolver, gets a stripped-down guitar treatment more in keeping with All Your Life and the album ends with a brief slice of Ringo’s anthem, “Octopus’ Garden,” from Abbey Road. A three-year-old Ava Di Meola, Al’s daughter, can be heard singing on the track, a fitting close for a recording that speaks to the timeless, intergenerational appeal of this music.
“More than 50 years later, there’s not a day that goes by in our lives that we don’t hear or see something of the Beatles,” reflected Al. “And whenever I hear their music, it puts me in a good mood.”
It’s a good bet Across the Universe will pass that mood along.