Jazz guitar virtuoso Al Di Meola graced the Largo Central Park Performing Arts Center for a special cabaret style, socially distanced, two-show performance on Saturday, March 27th. Di Meola was a defining sound in jazz guitar for a generation during the 70s and 80s, playing with a who’s who of legends, starting as a 19-year-old wunderkind with pianist Chick Corea in the jazz-fusion Return to Forever ensemble, through acoustic associations with fellow guitar masters Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin.
The Largo show was loosely in support of Di Meola’s second Beatles’ tribute album, titled “Across the Universe”, and was originally scheduled for just over a year ago, right when the Covid pandemic shut down the live entertainment industry practically overnight. The day featured both a matinee and evening performance, with a meet and greet session in between. Tampa Bay fans were excited to have the opportunity to meet and watch such a renowned artist in an intimate setting. Strangely enough, the Covid attendance restrictions created a once in a lifetime opportunity for the true Di Meola devotees.
Accompanying Mr. Di Meola was Tampa area Latin percussion master Gumbi Ortiz, whose association with Al dates back nearly 30 years, through multiple albums, ensembles and world tours.
As the saying goes, “You never forget how to ride a bike”, but even so, musicians as accomplished as Al Di Meola can experience trepidations about playing live in front of an audience after such a long layoff. He expressed concern about losing momentum and being able to easily pick it back up after extended down time. Of course, most average folks would only dream of the skills of an Al Di Meola displayed on his worst night, but it demonstrates his dedication to craft.
Playing with an old friend like Gumbi Ortiz made it easy for Al to get back into the groove in a casual type of atmosphere, to try some things out, decide what works and feel his way into post Covid performances.
The show was not highly structured, as Di Meola casually recounted anecdotes, told the fans that he was going to “play it by ear”, and that he’d perform selected songs that he’d written, performed or been inspired by throughout his career. As such, it was a winding evening that touched on re-imaginings of Beatles classics like Norwegian Wood, favorites from his Return to Forever and solo recording periods, and serious pieces from his mentor Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla.
The chemistry and natural feel between Di Meola and Ortiz was genuine, fluid and passionate, as the creative juices re-emerged, sweeping through abstract rhythm and chord progressions, to his characteristic scorching Flamenco and lighting fast picking sequences.
Tampa Bay Music News caught up with Al and Gumbi for a bit after they had a moment to decompress following the evening show, Al showing emerging with chicken soup in a cup for a bit of quick nourishment. The long day of two shows with a meet and greet in-between, admittedly had Al exhausted by day’s end, but the two were pleased that the show went as well as could be expected. The fans certainly agreed and gave a rousing round of approval after a nearly 90-minute performance.
Di Meola paused and lamented over how the advent of cell phones and social media has so fragmented focus, that it would be nearly impossible to create the cohesion that some of his classic bands had back in the 80s.
Al reflected to Gumbi in astonishment, “When I look back on some of the stuff that we did, I don’t think it could ever be done again like that, because we were so into the momentum and played so many shows, you don’t think you can ever get back”, to that kind of focus and commitment, with everyone now being so distracted by their own pursuits.
As he retired for the evening after a long first day back to the stage and an early morning wakeup call, Di Meola left satisfied with the thought that “But, I’m at least happy to be finally playing live again, so that I don’t forget the music!” Judging from his reception in Largo that evening after the imposed layoff, we’re sure that his legion of longtime fans couldn’t agree more.
BY PHOTOJOURNALIST JEFFREY MOELLERING