Al Di Meola Elysium
Al Di Meola is widely known as one of the founders of jazz fusion, along with other luminaries such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Elysium is the latest recording in his illustrious career, and from start to finish, it is one of the most satisfying albums I’ve heard in quite time. This review is of the two-LP, 13 track, audiophile pressing on the Inakustik/Valiana label. It is recorded at 45 RPM and made on 180 gram vinyl using the Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) technique, cut from a 24/48 Hi-Res Master. It is also available on red book CD and as a digital download. These versions also include a bonus track.
Judging from the album’s title and the photo of a shirtless Di Meola on the cover, we can gather that at this stage in his career we are witnessing a master musician who is comfortable in both, his own unique brand of music and his own skin. The word Elysium is synonymous with words like bliss, nirvana and paradise. Think of it as reaching a place where absolute contentment is what’s most familiar. There’s a certain familiarity to Di Meola’s music that in lesser musicians I would find boring. But he masters his instruments (most notably his Gibson custom made Les Paul guitar) so thoroughly that the brilliance of the performance engages and absorbs you. Di Meola’s sound is unmistakable, Latin-influenced acoustic guitar layered with Santana-esque lead guitars, layered with keyboards and anchored by rhythmically dynamic percussions. He has thankfully resisted the temptation to “commercialize” his music by trying to add any pop or hip-hop influences like we often see so many so called ”smooth jazz” artists do. All the songs on this album sound like very personal voyages, and at times I have to admit to not knowing when one song ends and the next song begins because Di Meola’s musical signature is so strong. I don’t mean this as a bad thing, it’s more a case of that each song being executed so well that they sometimes blend.
The opening tracks, “Adour” and “Cascade” offer great introductions to not only Di Meola’s excellence but also that of his extraordinary band: keyboardists, Barry Miles, Mario Parmisano, and the great Phillipe Saisse; percussionist, Rhani Krija; drummer, Peter Kaszans and of course Di Meola on all the guitars and strings. You may have noticed that there was no mention of a bass player. This leaves you with recordings that are rich in dynamic midrange and upper frequency textures. Di Meola’s driving guitar work and the drums provide more than enough low frequency weight. The songs “Babylon” and “Tangier” are perfect examples of this. By contrast “Etcetera In E-Minor,” my favorite song on this album, is lighter in register but so much more engrossing and melodic.
Frankly, every song on Elysium seems to fall into one of those two categories: hard-driving and rhythmic or melodic and engrossing. Actually, there is a third category: a song like “Amanjena,” that starts out melodic and becomes hard driving. Regardless, you won’t find a song on this album that isn’t eminently enjoyable and the recording quality is stellar. So if it sounds like I’m describing an album that is loaded with good music that is brilliantly performed and produced, then you know what you’re going to get from Elysium. It is familiar, but in a good way. Al Di Meola does not pretend to be blazing any new trails here. He is not trying to reinvent himself and why should he? He is a man and musician who is comfortable in his own skin, a man who has reached Elysium, if you will. This is fusion at its finest and one of my favorite recordings this year.