Satisfying the heart and mind | Al di Meola

Hours before he took the stage at this year’s Malta Jazz Festival, Al Di Meola sat down for a chat with us, and the New York-born jazz superstar had plenty to say on both his own development as an artist and the state of music right now.

Al di Meola performed at the opening night of this year’s Malta Jazz Festival, held at Ta’ Liesse, Floriana. Photo by Joe Smith.
Al di Meola performed at the opening night of this year’s Malta Jazz Festival, held at Ta’ Liesse, Floriana. Photo by Joe Smith.

The trouble with jazz

"Broadly speaking, jazz is a very 'intellectual' kind of music. And partly because of that, I think that there tend to be more problems with jazz than there are positives. Lots of jazz musicians tend to forget about their audience, or rather lose their interest fairly quickly. The emphasis on improvisation, for example, unfortunately sometimes comes at the expense of composition. A very long jazz solo could go by so by the time it's finished, you catch yourself gasping for relief as you're clapping. That's not to say it wasn't technically admirable... but by sacrificing composition and harmony, you can lose your audience."

The Latin influence

"I was always surrounded by Latin influences, all the way back to my teenage years. There were a lot of Latin clubs around when I was growing up in New York, and that's how I slowly began to cultivate an interest in the rhythmic aspect of the music, and how it could lend a very earthy, emotional feel to the jazz sound. Then I also developed an interest in ethnic, Middle Eastern music. But it was the tango style Astor Piazzola who turned out to be the strongest influence of all.

"He enlightened me to the fact that yes, you can have complex, intellectual arrangements - like a lot of jazz tends to be, for better or worse - while still crafting songs that'll hit people in the heart.

"So after many years of working within electric fusion I realised that this was the new path I wanted to take. Not that I shunned the previous style completely - who knows, I might even return to it some day - but I wanted more than anything to pursue this style which I would call, for lack of a better word, a more 'sentimental' style, which would give you a wide range of emotions while still being complex and interesting from a technical standpoint.

"When I decided to work in this genre, my American fans were like "wow, what's this foreign music?" It seemed exotic to them, when in fact it had been developing in Europe for a very long time. For this reason, I see myself as a bit of a 'strange American' - I feel more attuned to the European musical milieu in this respect. The thing with Americans is that we still seem to want to be hit over the head with loud sounds... and I'm not into that at the moment, though I might return to it some day."

On winning awards

"I don't really feel any pressure after I win awards, though I definitely feel honoured, and of course it comes with a certain degree of satisfaction. But I don't think any musician worth their salt would look at awards as some kind of be-all-and-end-all. I think I speak for all musicians when I say that, by and large, we never really feel like we've done enough. No matter how many awards you get, you're always going to be learning: it might take you four or five entire lifetimes to learn all there is to learn about your instrument.

"Besides, there are bigger challenges in life. The award I really want to get is the award for being a good person, but sadly I don't think they give those out officially... though my daughter gives me that award sometimes, it comes in the form of a kiss."

The state of popular music

"Oh, I'm the wrong person to ask about contemporary pop music. I'm a real critical opponent to that world. Justin Bieber? He makes music for kids. If I was kid I'd probably like him. No wait, I wouldn't - I had great taste when I was a kid! I was into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And the funny thing is, all of the kids from my generation who grew up with that music loved it then, and we still love it now. But I don't think the kids growing up listening to the stuff that's in the charts right now would be able to say the same thing a few years down the line. There's no harmony in the music, the melodies are awful, none of them can sing (except for Lady Gaga, she has a lovely voice...)

"I think what ruined popular music is an emphasis on social commentary, on words - and especially ghetto poetry - taking over the value of harmony. And harmony is the key ingredient of any good music. The Beatles certainly weren't jazz musicians, and there's nothing 'intellectual' about their compositions. But their music has great, great harmony.

"Today's pop music just seems to be geared to making your head bob up and down, or to make you move to it, and that's it. But there's nothing special about that. You could move to the sounds of a jack hammer if you wanted to."