November 26, 2010

Jazz fusion

Back in 1996 my guitar teacher gave me a tape recording of the 1982 Friday night in San Francisco concert by Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola. I knew little about guitar music and was very lucky to be introduced to these three composers so early on. They had a great impact on me as a music listener and occasional player. Although I am far from being a professional, guitar playing and improvisation alone or in duets is a great source of joy for me. After being introduced to these composers I listened to a lot of works from all three of them and gradually got to know more and more music outside of my traditional musical library, which back then consisted mostly of hip hop (which is not a bad thing either).

Since there is a great number of jazz fusion artists and since some of the readers maybe have never listened to Jazz fusion, I will try to introduce some of the players that I have been listening to over the years and the kind reader has to rely on my musical taste which he/she of course may or may not like. I am not an expert on jazz fusion or music in general, but I do like to listen to beautiful musical melodies and nice harmonies that have deeper ideas and I hope that some readers who don't know jazz fusion or have never heard of Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia or John McLaughlin might come to love their music just as I did.

This composition is called Mediterranean sundance, written by Al Di Meola (the original version can be found on the album Elegant gypsy  and the famous duet with Paco de Lucia on the Friday night in San Francisco album) and is a great demonstration of what Jazz fusion and these three guys are all about. The beauty of the music still amazes me even if I listen to it for the 150th time.

The three guitarists are all of three different styles. Paco de Lucia (left) is a famous flamenco guitar player, Al di Meola (center) and John McLaughlin (right) both have worked with several different styles of music, but jazz fusion is probably what describes them best.

In this video, Paco de Lucia has a nylon string flamenco guitar and plays only with his fingers, Al di Meola has a steel stringed Ovation guitar and plays with a plectrum. I've seen John McLaughlin use mainly nylon stringed Ovation guitars while on stage with Paco and Al, but this one I am not sure of. He also plays with a plectrum.

Al Di Meola

Al Di Meola (born Al Laurence Dimeola July 22, 1954 in Jersey City, New Jersey) is an American jazz fusion and Latin jazz guitarist. Having a musical career that has spanned more than three decades, he continues to be one of the most influential guitarists in the jazz fusion category. Albums such as Friday Night in San Francisco have often been cited as some of the most influential live albums ever recorded. Numerous have earned their place as legendary recordings for the practicing guitarist.

Source: Wikipedia

When I started to listen to jazz fusion, I was a big fan of Al Di Meola's, because I admired the speed and clarity (mostly the speed) with which he struck the notes. I remember practicing hours and hours on end every day for months listening to his Cd's trying to figure out the scales and the chords to his songs and still couldn't understand how one could get to his level even after years and years of practice. When I first listened to the The guitar trio CD, I somehow found Al's compositions and the parts where he was improvising to be the most appealing to me. He was playing very fast, clear sections combined with slow rhythmical phases with amazing ideas, that one cannot invent only feel. In addition, while listening to his work, I really had to pay attention as to where his music was going, because otherwise I got lost very easily. I once heard Al say, that words will never be able to express feelings the way a guitar can. If you listen to Al's music (the entire trio really) and really get into their solos note by note, you understand it is really their emotions talked through the strings of a guitar. When it's all three of them together, sometimes you can see them interact, when one or the other copies a series of notes or a melody that the other one just played and alters it a bit suiting his mood at that given moment, which can really be done only by the greatest. Of course many artists try to do this, but the outcome of such an (or any) improvisation is a masterpiece only in a few cases. Here are some of my favorite Al's compositions:

Splendido Sun dance by Al (originally from the album Splendido Hotel, on which Al is joined by Les Paul and Chick Corea among others) is one of my all time favorites, not only in the Jazz fusion department, but also when it comes to songs in general. The main melody consists of 8 not very musically complicated chords (I don't want to say that they are not difficult to play, just not very difficult to listen to, because Al's later work becomes more and more challenging in this respect) that are very pleasant to listen to. The three guitarists improvise and challenge each other musically and some amazing harmonies see the light of this world during their improvisation, mainly in John McLaughlin's and Paco de Lucia's intro sections, which unfortunately are not a part of this video. At 3:41 Al also plays probably the most complicated yet nicely sounding soloing section that I've ever heard or seen someone improvise live (although Al has practiced parts of it before I'm sure).  All in all a wonderful performance of this composition, full of emotions.


This is a song called Espiritu from the album The guitar trio back from 1996, which is also a very nice song by Al DiMeola. I haven't been following his new work after 1996 very much and mostly listened to his earlier CDs, so I only have to say this in a very general fashion, but I feel that this song is still (along with his 80's production) in big contrast to his recent/latest work. He still keeps the melody simple for everyone to enjoy and his harmonies and solos are a pleasure to listen to even for someone not familiar with jazz fusion without any effort. 

In his more recent recordings, Al makes the melodies more and more complicated and complex and while you still can marvel at his genius, these songs are aimed at a more specific audience and do not give the casual listener the chills the way the old ones used to. Al introduces new effects to his guitar that I personally don't enjoy very much, but I do see why they could be appealing to someone else and from recordings that I've heard or seen, he also usually plays with a small orchestra, the name of the ensemble being World Sinfonia

This next piece called Libertango I enjoy very much, because the original song has been composed by a big big genius from Argentina called Astor Piazzolla. Although I like the original composition by better, this version of the song is still very nice, because one can enjoy and learn a lot from how Al treats the melody. The performances of the pianist and percussionist are also noteworthy. At 3:45 you can see one very interesting part of Al's playing, which is his understanding of the rhythm and melody and how he's playing with them. Al often deliberately goes off key, so that the song sounds dis-harmonic for a while. He then improvises with this disharmony and returns to the correct key making the original melody stand out in contrast (He often does this in his other compositions as well). He does this also when it comes to rhythm and at 3:45 he demonstrates how he does that. It is quite a difficult thing to keep up with for a listener and I feel sorry for the percussionist and the rest of the orchestra, because following the melody when there is no one playing except Al must be really hard:

When I hear this performance and other Al's recent work, I miss the 80's - 90's Al, but on the other hand his rhythmic improvisations accompanied by the percussionist were still amazing and the part starting at 7:29 reminds me of Al's old Race with the devil on a Spanish highway so it's just evolution of one's style I guess. A world class composer and guitar player like him must inevitably get tired of some of his harmonies and melodies that he has been playing over the years and constantly come across new ideas and melodies all the time. Either way, I hope he will continue to write for a long long time and maybe rediscover the charm of the melodies he once did back in the 80s.


  1. Rebecca Chen( 1, 2011 at 7:01 PM

    A belated Happy Birthday, Vladimir!

    Hope you had a great one!


  2. Hi Rebecca,

    Thank you very much :)