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Jazz guitarist Al Di Meola is an exemplary player, who many would call a musician’s musician.
He has been attracting attention since his late teens when legendary jazz keyboard player Chick Corea invited him to join the fusion supergroup, Return to Forever, based almost solely on the strength of a tape he’d received of a quartet Di Meola played in while attending the Berklee College of Music.
That was 1974, and in the 46 years since then the New Jersey-born guitarist has recorded more than 20 albums as a solo artist and as a member of Return To Forever (with Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White), as part of an acclaimed acoustic guitar trio featuring fellow virtuosos John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia and with the Rite of Strings trio with bassist Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
Di Meola is celebrated among guitar players for his dazzling technique on both acoustic and electric guitars, the soulfulness and inherent lyricism of his playing and his phenomenal writing.
From the very beginning of his career he has had a fascination with complex rhythmic syncopation combined with provocative lyrical melodies and sophisticated harmony.
And all of that comes into play on Di Meola’s latest project, Across The Universe, which features brilliant instrumental versions of more than a dozen of his favourite songs by The Beatles.
While there are no shortage of instrumental Beatles covers out there I can think of none that come close to those Di Meola offers up here in which the instantly recognizable melodies of songs like Here Comes The Sun, Your Mother Should Know, Norwegian Wood, Yesterday and Here There and Everywhere are blended into the elaborated and unique style of one of the greatest jazz guitarists our time.
Di Meola, who has admired The Beatles since his teen years, takes the material to some very interesting places but his immense respect for the music and its creators remains clear throughout.
In a sense, his homage to The Beatles is an invitation to join him on a personal journey as he revisits songs that were instrumental in helping to shape the way he looked at music and what he could bring to the table.
His virtuosic arrangements and creative interpretations of these 14 Beatles songs, which balance lightning speed electric guitar orchestrations with lavish acoustic arrangements, have been on heavy rotation at my house for three weeks now and will remain there for a while.
I’m particularly stuck on his arrangements of Your Mother Should Know, I’ll Follow The Sun, Norwegian Wood and Yesterday, which the Guinness Book of Records has certified the most recorded song of all time with over 1,600 versions.
The original versions of many of these songs were not much more than two minutes long, but for this record Di Meola chose to go much deeper into the music, stretching some out to double their original length and sometimes more.
During an interview with Michael Watts for guitar.com posted in January, he said he wanted to take the music The Beatles had created and do his own thing with it by, among other things, syncopating some of the rhythms.
And while he did do that, the melodies remained very close to what they were when they were first composed all those years ago.
Di Meola said in that interview that the music of The Beatles for him means pure joy, and that is certainly the impression you get from Across The Universe.
(Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)
Doug Gallant is a freelance writer and well-known connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every second Saturday. To comment on what he has to say or to offer suggestions for future reviews, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.