Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
A JazzApril story
There was only one real revelation to come from Al Di Meola and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s duet show at The Egg: Until that night, Di Meola had never known why Greater Nippertown’s most recognizable concert venue was called “The Egg”! It’s not like Di Meola hadn’t played here before, but apparently the iconic guitarist had been asleep when the tour bus for World Sinfonia or Rite of Strings rolled up the North Arterial. Now that mystery had been cleared up, Di Meola and Rubalcaba got down to giving us exactly what we expected – sheer, unadulterated genius.
While this pair has never recorded as a unit, Rubalcaba guested on two Di Meola discs (2002’s Flesh on Flesh and 2011’s Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody), and Di Meola has been a fan of the Cuban keyboard wizard since he first heard Rubalcaba on a fusion date over 25 years ago. Maybe they haven’t logged a ton of playing time together, but you’d never know it by listening to their intricate interplay on the opener “Siberiana.” Rubalcaba worked a vamp as Di Meola’s fingers flew up the fret board at warp speed, finding a figure of their own to work as Rubalcaba seamlessly took the solo spot. If there were transitional points worked into the sheet music both players feverishly studied, those points were not discernable as the duo displayed an adamantine chemistry.
Di Meola was technically playing acoustic, in that the instrument he brought to the stage was an acoustic guitar. But he also brought the same set of stomp boxes he’d had when World Sinfonia played the Swyer, as well as a small mixing board sitting on a box to the left of his chair. Di Meola hadn’t gotten out of his first solo before he was making his acoustic guitar sound electric, and he frequently augmented his acoustic solos with a synth harmonizer. Basically there were only two differences between this show and the World Sinfonia gig I saw in 2010: There was no “I Love ME!” slide show of Al’s various bands and looks, and Di Meola was playing with someone as brilliant as he was.
One of the things I loved about Rubalcaba’s 2012 release XXI Century was he had gotten back to basics, working with tight quartets and quintets to produce a simpler, more focused sound. Apparently, less is definitely more with Rubalcaba, because he took to the duo format like a fish to water. All his comps may as well have been played on congas, because they had that same kind of percussive snap, and his solos were rich with the kind of color and depth associated with Horace Silver, a major Rubalcaba influence. Those solos came in sudden bursts on “Bona” as Al tapped out a double-time beat so loud, I could hear it from eight rows up. As great as his work with Di Meola was, Rubalcaba absolutely shined on two solo-piano improvisations, one that included a dazzling deconstruction of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
As much as I look askance at Di Meola’s digital addiction, there’s no way to fault the way he plays. It’s flamenco, it’s fusion, it’s idea after idea flying past you at broadband speed; it’s an insult to call what Di Meola does “shredding,” because whether it’s his own music or “standards” as diverse as Lennon & McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and Astor Piazzola’s “Double Concerto Milonga, Part Two,” the sense of lyric is simply undeniable. That may be why Di Meola loves the Beatles, whose music he just recorded on the upcoming release All Your Life. “Without them,” Di Meola told us, “most of us wouldn’t have learned to play the guitar!” He left the digital world behind to lay down a marvelous interpretation of “Blackbird,” and followed it with a meditation that had at least three Beatles tunes living inside it.
The closing take on “Mediterranean Sundance” was big and beautiful, intimate and intricate, and if Di Meola hadn’t made a defining recording of the piece with John McLaughlin & Paco DeLucia, this version would go right to the Hall of Fame. Two guys, a piano, and a guitar: You can’t much simpler, with or without stomp boxes. But give that matrix to two genuine musical geniuses like Al Di Meola and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and the result is a night you’d want as a deathbed musical memory, and if it never happens again, at least it happened, and we got to witness it.