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Jeff Miers: My long, strange trip with Al Di Meola

For a two-year period in my preteens, Kiss took over my life.

The shock-rock foursome chased away the Beatles, Miles Davis and what I’d previously considered my own good taste, in favor of their Barnum & Bailey-styled overkill and hyper-amped bad-boy boogie. I’d lost my senses, I can see that clearly now. But what was a poor boy to do? Style, which Kiss clearly had, was crushing substance, which Kiss clearly lacked.

Al Di Meola, who performs Saturday in the Bear’s Den at the Seneca Niagara Casino, might not seem like an obvious choice for a musical savior, but in many ways, he was mine. Or more specifically, it was Di Meola’s work on “Friday Night in San Francisco” that was the first blow against the Kiss empire.

For this live recording, guitarist Di Meola was joined by fellow jazz six-string giant John McLaughlin and a man I’d come to understand as a legend of Flamenco guitar playing, Paco DeLucia. That’s all – three guitarists, no drummer, no bass player, no singer, and no flash pots, blood-spitting or absurd sexual innuendos. What I heard in “Friday Night in San Francisco” was a perfect marriage of virtuosity and passion. A profound musical conversation between three master musicians. It hit me hard. And it made me forget about Kiss.

I have no idea why music of Spanish descent would speak on such a profound level to a kid of Irish and Polish heritage living in the suburbs, but man, did it ever. I started following the path backward from the album, and it led me to McLaughlin’s work with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It also led me to Di Meola’s previous work, and I was hooked. He’d been a member of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and within a few years, I’d fall for this music in a major way. But the first proper Di Meola solo album I wrapped my hands around was “Land of the Midnight Sun,” the album he released under his own name after leaving Corea’s RTF.

Di Meola was a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and he had more than obviously spent considerable time developing his technique as a guitarist while still a student. By the time he showed up in RTF, he already had mastered a style that married blazing speed and abundant dexterity with a flair for the dramatic and the mysterious. But it was the manner in which Di Meola fused Latin influences to fiery electric jazz that truly melted my face and rearranged the way I experienced music, even at the tender age of 13, which was where I sat the first time that “Land of the Midnight Sun” landed on my turntable. I might not have been cognizant of this fact at the time, but what the music had in spades was a sensuality and a romanticism that set it apart and made it exotic.

The sheer ambition apparent in this collection amazed me then, and still does today. Di Meola was clearly not bound by any of the genre and demographic considerations of the day – he chose freely between tunes by Mingo Lewis, Bach and his mentor, Chick Corea, and placed his own dynamic compositions alongside these. In some ways, Di Meola had more in common with progressive rock, the progenitors of which followed a similar “all good music is its own genre and is fair game as an influence” ethic.

It was music a young person could dream to. And it was also music that, at the time, was considered “alternative” – not everyone knew about this stuff during the height of disco and glam-rock, but those who did were considered hip. I was having a tough time fitting in at this stage of my life, and when I listened to “Land of the Midnight Sun” and a few other albums of similar range and scope, I realized that not fitting in was actually cool. Maybe this stuff was a tad pretentious, but if looking far and wide for musical inspiration was pretentious, then that was fine with me.

These days, Di Meola is considered a prime mover in what we would eventually come to refer to – somewhat cloyingly – as the “world music” movement, a blanket descriptive meant to include music that does not have its genesis on American soil. (This is absurd, primarily because almost everything we listen to has roots that can be traced back to Africa. Really, all music should be considered “world music.”) Di Meola sought and assimilated the influence of sounds indigenous to the Middle East, Brazil and Africa, and married them all to his own fiery, jazz-informed approach. You didn’t need to call it anything to feel its power.

You can hear the Di Meola influence everywhere these days, from Snarky Puppy’s genre-bursting forays into “world”-influenced jazz for small group and large ensemble alike, to the most ambitious jam-bands, and even the purveyors of present-day progressive rock. A whole new generation of young musicians has become enthralled by Di Meola’s work both within Return to Forever, and as a band leader. I’ve heard young ensembles playing his music around Buffalo increasingly over the past year or so.

Di Meola never stopped pushing forward, either. Last week, he released a new album, “Elysium,” which finds him continuing to bring forth new hybrids of Latin and jazz influences, and in this case, presenting them in deliciously rich arrangements that suggest a nod to some of the legendary Gil Evans’ work with Davis.

Speaking of Miles, Di Meola was also recently selected as the recipient of the 2015 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal Miles Davis Award, which places him in the company of luminaries like McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and McCoy Tyner, all previous winners of the award. In a statement from the festival’s board, Di Meola was praised for displaying “a relentless curiosity for harmonic and rhythmic experimentation” across several decades of work.

Hats off to you, Al. And hey, thanks – if not for you, I might still be listening to Kiss.