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Di Meola (center) and World Sinfonia—(left to right) Faust Beccalossi, Peter Kaszas,
Peo Alfonso, Gumbi Ortiz, and Victor Miranda. Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Is there any Roland VG-88 on the record?
Yes. I used a little bit of that on acoustic parts here and there, as well as a GR-1 guitar synthesizer, which has been discontinued but is, in my opinion, the best one Roland has made. On “Destination Gonzalo,” for instance, I played my signature model Ovation and combined the basic acoustic-electric sound with a fretless bass setting on the GR-1 to get this really awesome effect.
Although the guitar really does shine, the album seems to be more about the ensemble than your own playing.
I paid extremely close attention to how all the instruments blended together. In the past, I’ve used the combination of acoustic guitar and piano or synth, but I’ve come to find that keyboards can be a little overbearing when played with a nylon-string. The instruments’ timbres can be too close together, because both have strings. There’s a lot of accordion on the record, courtesy of the great Fausto Beccalossi, and that instrument works really well with the guitar— especially when adding counterpoint. With their completely different sounds, accordion and guitar are so beautiful together, very European and romantic. And the accordion adds a depth and meaning to the sound that you just can’t get from an electronic keyboard.
In addition to your usual World Sinfonia co-conspirators, you had some pretty distinguished guests on the record—jazz bass legend Charlie Haden, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and others.
Right—it was great! Charlie’s a super-legendary and super-friendly guy. He was amazingly easy to work with, and he brought an unusual gut-string upright bass for the session, which had a really beautiful sound—especially for ballads. It worked really well on “Over the Rainbow,” which has this nostalgic feel. Working with Gonzalo was also great. What can I say—he’s a super god on the piano! It was such an honor to have him, Charlie, and also [jazz drummer] Peter Erskine on the record. They were all so supportive and happy to be part of the session. Their enthusiasm was infectious and brought out the best in all of us.
You also worked with a second guitarist, Kevin Seddiki. Did you find this freeing?
Yes, it allowed me to take on both soloing and accompaniment roles, both on the album and in concert. But more important, I really like the sound of two guitars at once—it’s sort of the nucleus of many of my pieces, and it’s what I first hear in my head when I’m composing. Working with two guitars can be a little tricky, though, because to the listener they can be indistinguishable from one another. This is easy enough to address in the studio, just by panning one instrument right and the other left, but I’ve also found that it helps keep the sounds separate to use a nylon-string and a steel-string, which have such nicely contrasting sounds.
Speaking of composing, what was your writing process like for this album?
It wasn’t so unusual. I sat down in my home on the beach in Miami and wrote all the parts. I’d normally start with the arpeggios that form the structure of a piece, followed by the melody and a bass line, all with lots of counterpoint. That’s the beginning skeleton of any written piece of mine. From there, you can do anything.
Did you actually write out the parts, or did you record them and play them for the other musicians to learn by ear?
I did things the old-fashioned way: I wrote out all of the individual melodic and harmonic parts—everything but the percussion— painstakingly by hand. Then I took the charts to rehearsal and had my drummer, Peter Kaszas, and percussionist, Gumbi Ortiz, work everything out. My only compositional input and my general rule of thumb is that a percussionist and drummer shouldn’t play the same things. Each should have independent parts that create a massively syncopated whole.
There are lots of international sounds on the album—and in your music in general. Can you pinpoint specific influences for that?
I feel so at home in the world of music. I was born in the United States but don’t sound at all like an American. My music is influenced by different Latin styles and rhythmic derivations. This goes back to when I was a teenager and would hang out in Latin clubs in New York City and soak in all the complex rhythms. About 25 years ago, I totally immersed myself in the world of tango and in the works of Astor Piazzolla—which sit really well on the guitar but have been played by very few guitarists. I took the music—which is not just intellectual and technical but so deep and heartfelt—and made it my own by adding extreme syncopation and all kinds of unexpected rhythms. This influence also worked into my own compositions—not in terms of any one element, but more the overall passionate sound of the music.
But I’m into so many other styles—a lot of classical, Middle Eastern music, and so on. And I tend to soak in sounds where I travel, not by reading transcriptions or books about the music but more in a subliminal way. It just takes over and ends up in my music. For example, not long ago I visited Morocco with the group, and you can hear that influence on the new two-part composition “Mawazine.”