How does Al Di Meola manage it? He is surely the Dinosaur of Dinosaurs. A ’70s guitar “God” who still plays jazz-rock in the new millennium, logically, his name should be mud. Yet he constantly receives rapturous reviews in jazz mags (whether of the straight, nu, or smooth variety), his records sell well, and he has maintained a fanatically loyal and undiminished fan base. I don’t get it at all.
Flesh on Flesh, his third set for Telarc, ploughs a familiar furrow. Pyrotechnic jazz-rock alternates with would-be atmospheric, impressionistic sequences. True, the Latin/world influences are greater than ever, with Di Meola’s fondness for the work of Astor Piazzolla again to the fore. However, and despite such promising sources, the proceedings are rather too reminiscent of Focus, or similarly antiquated art rock outfits, for my liking. Unlike his ally and (aesthetically) close cousin John McLaughlin, Di Meola’s explorations remain bound by a stylistic straitjacket that the ex-Mahavishnuist has long since shed.
Of the guitarist’s formidable technique there is no doubt. His greater use of the acoustic department of his factory-sized collection of instruments is also welcome, but as to any emotional depth, I can’t find it. The fast numbers are far too busy and rocky while the slower pieces, though preferable, are no more substantial than many less pretentious smooth jazz affairs.
“Zona Desperata” is the unfortunate title of the most woeful of the uptempo tracks. It starts promisingly enough, with a sinuous bass-pattern from Anthony Jackson teasingly raising expectations. Actually, Di Meola’s choice of sidemen is impeccable throughout, with Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Fender Rhodes) and Gumbi Ortiz (percussion) particularly efficient. The tune’s complex melodic lines are also intriguing, but once that fuzz-pedal is pressed, we are back in the world of Wishbone Ash and other bands, whose corpses I had no need (or desire) to have disinterred. When his playing is more gently “acoustic” there is plenty to appreciate, but the structures and signposts have been put in place and you just know that any second now those intricate but arid licks are going to come leaping back in.
This effects even numbers as intimate as Piazzolla’s “Fugata”, here stripped of its pathos (and morbidity) to become yet another exercise in technical proficiency. There are moments of elegance there, too, it must be said. Elsewhere, the openings of “Inamorata” and “Meninas” are both exquisite, the latter’s decline into artrockery being the most frustrating aspect of the set. “Inamorata” has a delightfully filmic feel, which sadly is not sustained. The haunting vocal refrain in that number leads into some superior flamenco-style guitar and a graceful orchestral arrangement — but the scary stuff is never far away.
If you don’t share my prejudices against what happened to the electric guitar between 1969 and 1975, then ignore all the above and enjoy a master craftsman in action. Fans from Return to Forever days will know what to expect — but even they might wonder how an album that features Anthony Jackson can be so lacking in groove or any semblance of funkiness. Guitar-players and axe worshippers will also get more from this set than I did. Mind you, so would almost anyone. If Di Meola had stuck to the acoustic guitar, I could perhaps have coped. But he didn’t, and I was lost by the second fast-fingered dash up and down the fretboard. Sorry Al, I heard too much of this stuff a long time ago.