COLD FUSION WORKING IN A FORM THAT'S SLIPPED IN POPULARITY, AL DI MEOLA STILL SWINGS A MEAN AX

There's something very intriguing about photographs of jazzman Al Di Meola. In every recent shot, the guitarist's handsome looks are overshadowed by an uncomfortable intensity. Even when smiling, Di Meola conveys the kind of anger and pain seen in someone recently jilted.

And in a sense, the jazz guitarist has been dissed by his main love, the jazz audience. In the mid-Seventies, Di Meola was the darling of the jazz-fusion crowd, racking up an impressive amount of attention with his fastest-gun-in-the-West playing. Even rock 'n' rollers bought his records to hear him execute his zillion-note runs.

But he has learned that jazz, like pop, sometimes discards stars as quickly as it makes them. Now, when Di Meola stands in front of a camera, he gives us a hint of what that feels like.

Di Meola was only 19 when jazz pianist Chick Corea threw fame in his lap by taking him into his band, Return to Forever. RTF was a fusion group no less popular than Weather Report or the jazz-rock conglomerates headed by Miles Davis. Di Meola had heard RTF and taken a chance by sending the band a demo tape of his guitar work. Corea soon hired him, handing Di Meola a ready-made following of fusion fans who adored the group as much as Di Meola did.

Return to Forever's previous fret man was Bill Connors, who favored a low-key, spacey feel on the guitar. Di Meola offered a monstrous change for both the band and its fans. While other fusion guitarists veered toward the usual string-bending rock cliches, Di Meola captured listeners by sounding more like an electrified flamenco musician than another Hendrix clone. The ever-somber guitarist tore through his lines with speed and precision. Fans lapped up his clusters of tamped, staccato notes and Spanish-tinged lyricism. Both Di Meola and the rest of Corea's band shone brightest on the album Romantic Warrior, an unusual foray into medieval music by way of electronic jazz. Romantic Warrior became one of the most creative and successful recordings of the fusion era. And Di Meola found himself playing not only with the most notable pianist of his day, but with fellow speedster-bassist Stanley Clarke as well. Hardly a month went by without either Di Meola or Clarke gracing the cover of a guitar magazine.

But then things suddenly changed. Di Meola had reached the height of popularity only to have Corea disband RTF to pursue other projects. The guitarist had no choice but to pick up the pieces. To this day, Di Meola talks like his pinnacle moment in jazz was his work with Corea. JazzTimes magazine recently ran a retrospective on the fusion movement, eliciting a very telling comment from Di Meola. Can you imagine," commented the guitarist, if RTF had not broken up in 1976 and continued releasing records? We'd have 15 albums out by now with a lot of growth and development."

At first Di Meola's solo career prospered. He released a string of solo albums on Columbia Records, the same label that released Romantic Warrior. His Land of the Midnight Sun became the biggest-selling debut album Columbia ever released, and the follow-up, Elegant Gypsy, went gold. But the next three years' worth of releases didn't fare as well. Soon, the master of the six-string was playing faster than his records were selling.

Hungering for the kind of stability and name recognition he had had with RTF, Di Meola joined guitarists John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia in 1980 for two albums of speed-flamenco improvising. The three musketeers of speed guitar gathered a lot more attention than any one of the single artists could have mustered on his own. They recorded two albums of competitive flash that, in spite of self-indulgent moments, remain wonderful guitar showdowns. But like Corea, McLaughlin and de Lucia soon moved on to other projects. Still trying to keep the flame of fame lighted, Di Meola carried on with two less-exciting guitar whackers, Bireli Lagrene and Larry Coryell. This group also disbanded and Di Meola returned to his solo projects. By 1985 Di Meola had received 15 awards from Guitar Player magazine for his fret skills. Unfortunately, accolades from guitar fans do not mean a corresponding rise in sales. In the early Eighties, Columbia dropped him. Di Meola turned to Manhattan Records for his next few recordings. They made few waves. Finally, he fell into silence. Four years passed with no new recordings.

Last year, though, Di Meola re-emerged with the near-simultaneous release of two new records. These days he's signed to tiny Tomato Records, a label that squeaks by selling releases by old bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and avant-garde composer Harry Partch. It's a long way from his heady days with Columbia. It's not that the guitarist has lost his touch. Di Meola may be a better player now than ever before. His most recent albums, World Sinfonia and Kiss My Axe, are in many ways his best albums to date. World Sinfonia shows the guitarist more deeply entrenched than ever in the Latin rhythms he has always loved. On that disc, he employs the able talents of a bevy of South American musicians, in particular Dino Saluzzi and his gut-wrenchingly beautiful work on the bandoneonÏthe South American equivalent of the accordion. Di Meola had even planned to record with the Argentine tango giant Astor Piazzolla before the latter succumbed to a debilitating stroke. Accustomed to setbacks, Di Meola recorded two of Piazzolla's tango pieces on World Sinfonia anyway.

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