Al Di Meola: The Endless Tango

Across continents, generations, instruments and sensibilities, Al Di Meola remains committed to the Nuevo Tango of Astor Piazzolla

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Al Di Meola at Freihofer Jazz Festival at Saratoga Springs
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Al Di Meola

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Al Di Meola, a guitarist still associated with the mid-’70s jazz-rock moment in which he rose to prominence, might seem an unlikely candidate for a tanguero. Yet over the past quarter-century, Di Meola’s relationship with Argentine Nuevo Tango legend Astor Piazzolla and his music has resulted in a new band, a new sound and a fresh approach to his own work. It’s been an unusual tango danced, as the original tangos were, by two men, across generational and cultural divides and even life and death.

Di Meola and Piazzolla first met at a jazz festival in Sapporo, Japan, in 1986. For the next few years they corresponded, enjoyed one another’s company whenever their paths crossed, exchanged music and made plans. Then, on Aug. 5, 1990, Piazzolla suffered a stroke. He lingered on for nearly two years—a grim, heartbreaking ordeal—before dying on July 4, 1992, at age 71.

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They never got to play together, and it’s unlikely Piazzolla ever heard Di Meola interpret his music. Still, the old master has had a profound impact on his younger colleague. “Astor was a great friend. He changed my whole concept of what I think about music and everything else. He’s been a major figure in my life,” says Di Meola, 56, lounging in his dressing room between shows at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. “I come from the beginning of that whole fusion period, and the music was very technical, and definitely had an element that jazz-rock audiences found very exciting. But a lot was based on our technical ability and all that crap.

“Piazzolla’s music is complex,” he continues, “but it also touches your heart. Fusion music never, ever had that. That was what fusion failed and continues to fail at. Even my heroes, and I say this with the utmost respect for people like Chick [Corea], have not connected to that—at all. It stimulated a kind of rock crowd with fireworks, but [Piazzolla’s music] was such a profound discovery. How can it be that music, at the very same time, can be technical and difficult and stimulating and interesting and also heartfelt? Now, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to connect to that.”

The 2008 reunion tour of Corea’s Return to Forever, the band that propelled Di Meola to fusion stardom while he was still a teenager, ended for the guitarist in bitter financial and personal disputes. But even without the politics, Di Meola, who initially championed the reunion, claims the tour was artistically unsatisfying. “It was a reminder that that was a music of the past,” he says. “I realized how bombastic, over the top and ridiculously loud everything was.

“It’s not something I’m part of anymore. I wasn’t fulfilled at all. I’ve moved on.”
Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody (Telarc), Di Meola’s latest recording with World Sinfonia, his Piazzolla-inspired acoustic group, was officially released on March 13, two days after what would have been Piazzolla’s 90th birthday. Unlike most previous World Sinfonia recordings, it doesn’t include any Piazzolla pieces, which is perhaps a tribute in itself: the young master, lessons learned, charting his own path. The recording also showcases an expanded group, including guest appearances by new collaborators and old friends, including bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, percussionist Mino Cinelu and keyboardist Barry Miles.

All but two of the tracks are original compositions by Di Meola. The others are the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” the latter played in tribute to Les Paul. The music exhibits a varied palette of influences, including music from Brazil, North Africa and the Caribbean. “I like to use those influences and incorporate them into the music,” Di Meola says, “but Piazzolla’s music will always be part of the sound of this group as well as my own compositions.”

Anchored in tango, Piazzolla’s music reflects a restless, cosmopolitan man, born in Mar del Plata, a seaside city about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires, and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, where his family migrated when he was 4. (The family returned to Argentina for good when Piazzolla was 16, and he would later live for stretches in Buenos Aires, New York, Paris and Rome.) He paid his tango dues while also becoming a leading player of the bandoneón, an extremely difficult but enormously expressive button squeezebox.

In time, however, Piazzolla pushed aside many of tango’s conventions, utilizing an electric guitar in his groups and opening tango’s harmonic language to broader influences such as Impressionism and cool jazz. He included in his pieces jazz-style solos, fugues, chorales, walking basslines and a signature driving pulse that evoked in equal parts Stravinsky, Bartók and klezmer music. That innovative spirit and a never-back-down, New York-bred attitude gained Piazzolla the virulent enmity of tango traditionalists for decades to come.

Still, while grudgingly accepted at home, by the time he met Di Meola in 1986, Piazzolla was acclaimed internationally, especially in Europe. In addition to his Nuevo Tango albums, he had recorded with Gerry Mulligan, composed music for film, was in the midst of a collaboration with vibraphonist Gary Burton, and was about to finally break in the United States with Tango: Zero Hour, one of his best recordings.

New Jersey-born Di Meola needs little introduction; by now, his story should be familiar. In 1974, at 19, he went from being a student at Berklee to playing Carnegie Hall with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, almost overnight. Corea, Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White—RTF’s best-known lineup—recorded three albums before disbanding in 1976. Without breaking step, Di Meola went on to his solo career, first building on his guitar-hero status as a jazz-rock fusioneer, and then making acoustic music an increasingly important part of his oeuvre. He also performed in the spectacular acoustic trio featuring flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and fellow fusion hero John McLaughlin.

Encouraged by the experience, by the time he met Piazzolla, Di Meola was exploring world music and other folk styles. “When we first met, Astor knew my music and I couldn’t understand the respect he had for me,” recalls Di Meola. “I didn’t even know who he was. [But] I liked him so much as a person, first. He was really warm and it was like meeting a long-lost relative. And there was such a connection with the guys in his band. I remember asking Gary Burton in the elevator, ‘What are you playing with these guys?’ and he said, ‘It’s the hardest music I’ve ever played in my life.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Wow—now I gotta hear this music. If Gary says that, and he is one of the most technical players in the world, I need to hear this.’ And then I heard some of his recordings and I was blown away. It was like discovering new Bach.”

Burton has since recorded two albums of Piazzolla’s music featuring the members of the original quintet. “Astor’s music appeals to jazz musicians quite often, and I can think of several reasons why,” the vibraphonist said via e-mail while on tour in New Mexico. “For one thing, his choice of harmonies is very contemporary and frequently similar to jazz. Second, tango is very dramatic and emotionally expressive music and so is jazz, and I think that appeals to us. And third, while many national music styles are geared more toward dancing than [showcasing] instrumental skills, tango is both a dance music but also very much a performance kind of music, especially the contemporary style of Astor.

“And I think the sheer virtuosity of Astor’s musicians gets the attention of jazz musicians,” he continues. “We can really appreciate that level of musicianship. I still remember when I first heard him live. I was touring with Stan Getz [in 1965], and I remember watching his band from the side of the stage at [the Buenos Aires club] 676. What they were doing was blowing us away.”

Piazzolla knew Di Meola from his work with Return to Forever, a group that was for a while so influential in Piazzolla’s musical thinking that it inspired him to organize his own electric group. Still, intriguing as it was, the Electronic Octet was a short-lived experiment. “Influence—not for the better,” Di Meola says sheepishly. “For me, the best stuff he did was not that. None of it had to do with the inclusion of trap-set drums or synthesizers. But I understand. It happens with musicians. We get involved with something and want to incorporate it somehow.”

Guitarist and longtime Piazzolla collaborator Horacio Malvicino recalls being in New York with Piazzolla in May 1976, for a concert at Carnegie Hall, when the master spotted an advertisement for an imminent Return to Forever concert. “We just jumped in head first and went to get our tickets,” says Malvicino. “They were presenting a new album [Romantic Warrior], and they killed us. They were virtuosos. They played it all from top to bottom with no parts, from memory, and it was like a machine. Perhaps it wasn’t the warmest music, and it wasn’t a style that I completely liked with all that speed and at that volume, but it was extraordinary, phenomenal musicianship.”

(Di Meola was not aware that Piazzolla had heard him play with RTF live. “My God! I had no idea they had attended our show way back when. It must’ve been the show at the Beacon Theatre,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “I am pleasantly surprised because I don’t recall Malvi or Astor telling me this.”)

Argentine guitarist, singer and producer Hernán Romero, who has collaborated with Di Meola since World Sinfonia’s Heart of the Immigrants in 1993, observes that Piazzolla was “a fan of Romantic Warrior,” and why not? “The theme in the song ‘The Romanic Warrior’ is sort of tanguero,” says Romero, “a Piazzolla tango played by extraterrestrials.”

Soon after meeting in Japan, Di Meola received a letter—“so warm, very complimentary,” he says—and music scores. “And they were freaking long, I mean really long, and involved. But all of it made sense. It was hard music, but it wasn’t obscure. I looked at that and thought, ‘You know what? This is an opportunity, because the music is so phenomenal and so much of the world doesn’t know it yet. I could be one of the first guys outside the classical world to do something original with his music’—which he wanted me to do, by the way. I had his blessings. He told me, ‘Alberto, I heard you are doing your own thing with my music. Great!’”

Di Meola has since interpreted Piazzolla’s music in a way that reflects the guitarist’s own sound, sometimes closer to the original versions (such as on World Sinfonia or Heart of the Immigrants) and sometimes approaching it with Caribbean grooves, a flamenco flavor or additional percussion. (Piazzollistas have mixed feelings about such liberties, and tango traditionalists would no doubt see the irony in such disapproval.)

Romero, who collaborated in these recordings, offers his perspective. At first, he says, Di Meola’s affinity for Piazzolla’s music “seemed a bit strange for a guy who grew up in North Bergen, N.J. But Al is not only a great musician but also very open, and he’s never tried to do exactly Piazzolla’s arrangement. There are musicians who still play the same exact arrangement, and I feel that way the music does not evolve. I believe Astor would have liked to hear his music done differently.”

Di Meola last saw Piazzolla in Amsterdam, just two weeks before the stroke. “We were playing at the same festival three nights before [his appearance], so I just stayed,” he recalls. “He had a whole new group [with] strings from Salzburg, and sounded really great. He was with his wife, Laura, and said, ‘I’m going to Paris now to work on my opera, and my very next project is with you. We need to discuss how we want to do it, if it’d be a duet, if it’d be with a group or with an orchestra.” They never saw each other again.

Di Meola says he was working on Piazzolla’s music when he learned about his stroke, and that the news pushed him forward. “I always loved the sentimentality that the bandoneón evokes, and after hearing Piazzolla and watching Dino [Saluzzi] at some festivals in Europe, I imagined playing with Dino,” explains Di Meola. “I think it was around that time that Piazzolla sent me some music, perhaps the ‘Tango Suite,’ that he wanted to hear me play. But I just kind of kept it on the backburner because it was so involved. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until he had his stroke that I thought, ‘This is the time to put a band together to play my pieces, but also some of his music as a tribute. Now I really have to do this.’”

World Sinfonia’s first lineup, in 1990, featured bandoneón virtuoso Saluzzi, an exceptional Argentine composer and bandleader in his own right. “Initially, that was not a project that had big plans for the future or anything like that,” Saluzzi said from his home in Buenos Aires. “At first, the idea was to have a duo. He’s an excellent guitarist, and I thought he had all the conditions for this music. It’s very hard to play the music from a certain place when you are not from that place.”

The two discs this lineup recorded are arguably World Sinfonia’s best: the self-titled World Sinfonia, from 1990, which includes two movements of Piazzolla’s “Tango Suite” as well as Di Meola’s poignant “Last Tango for Astor,” and Heart of the Immigrants, with its five Piazzolla compositions.

Over the past two decades, World Sinfonia has continued to evolve, as Di Meola has zigged and zagged from project to project, including electric outings and a classical guitar album dedicated entirely to Piazzolla music (Diabolic Inventions and Seduction for Solo Guitar, 2006). But even if the Piazzolla-based recordings pleased critics and the artist himself, not everyone was happy. “After I moved on from the electric fusion thing, a certain faction of my fans was not happy at all with the direction I took,” he says. “And then there are some who absolutely prefer this—especially in Europe. I had a harder time selling this way back when in the early ’90s, because it was like, ‘How come Al is not doing the electric fusion?’ It’s working now, but boy, it was a hard sell.”

“Many people who know Al [in Europe] know him more from the guitar trio than from RTF,” says Romero, who toured with the guitarist for years. “But in America, he has to play something from RTF or tunes like ‘Race With Devil on Spanish Highway.’ People ask for them here. I think it’s one of the reasons he plays more over there.”

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World Sinfonia’s current lineup, now a sextet, includes Fausto Beccalossi on accordion, replacing the bandoneón. The accordion, an extroverted, festive instrument in place of the darker-hued, more reserved bandoneón, gives the group a different feel. And the music now includes more electric guitar, a few fireworks, and broader, more varied influences. “This is the third edition of the group, a further development of the first one,” says Di Meola. “The basic concept is still the marriage of the acoustic guitar and either the bandoneón or accordion. The bandoneón, by nature, has a way of connecting to the heart that is profound, but my first instrument was accordion.

“[And] there are few bandoneón players like Dino,” he continues. “It’s so hard to find bandoneón players who can improvise. Fausto is such a phenomenal instrumentalist with a great sense of time, and it’s probably the best collaborative improvising combination I’ve ever had. We just breathe together. From the beginning there has been a non-ego relationship that is very special, and I never had at this level before. Here, the music comes first.

“That’s also something I got from Piazzolla: It’s the composition, it’s the music that’s important. Everything else comes off that.” He pauses, smiling at the thought. Across many divides, Piazzolla and his music never seem far away.

“For me, the connection is life-long,” he says. “I don’t think, no, I know there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him or play his music. He is part of my life. That’s the way it is. And I do my own thing, but hopefully he will always influence me in some way.”

Article Extra!

NUEVO TANGO NECESSITIES

Astor Piazzolla’s extensive discography is a jumble that includes his many official releases of studio and live recordings as well as compilations, editions of dubious origin and bootlegs—many selling the same music as the official releases with different titles and artwork. That said, here’s a list of personal (and lawful) favorites. FERNANDO GONZALEZ

Adios Nonino (Circular Moves/Trova, 1969)
An essential early recording featuring his first great quintet playing some of Piazzolla’s classic pieces, including the title track, a tribute to the composer’s late father written shortly after he passed.

Edición Critica: Música Popular Contemporánea de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (Vols. 1 & 2) (RCA Victor; 1971, 1972)
Two discs featuring Piazzolla’s short-lived but brilliant nonet (string quartet, bass, electric guitar, piano, percussion and bandoneón). Innovative writing and impeccable playing.

Tango: Zero Hour (American Clave, 1986)
A must-have. Produced by Kip Hanrahan and featuring Piazzolla’s last quintet at a peak, it offers Piazzolla’s music burnished to near-perfection.

La Camorra: The Solitude of Passionate Provocation (American Clave, 1989)
His late-career masterpiece. Here Piazzolla takes stock of tango’s history as he looks forward.

Originally published in July/August 2011

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