Ever since I randomly picked out a tape in my local library in the late 1980s called “Al Di Meola – Land of the Midnight Sun” (a technically impressive, melodic, innovative album he recorded in 1976, unbelievably at the age of 22) I’ve always been interested in his unusual approach to guitar playing and composition. It’s clear from what he did in his late ’70s albums, and then with his contributions to the Guitar Trio albums of the early ’80s (with Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin) that he already had a great legacy.
So I was interested when I heard he’d recently recorded a tribute to the Beatles – “All Your Life”. He describes in the album sleeve how influential the Beatles have been to popular music and culture in the past 40 or 50 years, and to him personally. As I am also a Beatles fan, I look forward to reviewing this album…
By the way, here are some abbreviations: ADM- Al Di Meola; PDL Paco de Lucia; JM – John McLaughlin; EM – Elevator Music; EL – Easy Listening
Making an Instrumental covers album
Briefly, before I get into the album itself, I want to mention an idea that shapes the way I listen to this music. The impact of vocal and instrumental popular music on the listener.
In the early days of jazz, melody was very important, and composers used to spend a lot of time at the piano coming up with distinctive melodies and chords. And often a lyricist would then put words to those melodies. Because of that, many of these “show tunes” were very popular with improvising musicians like Charlie Parker in the bebop era, because the melodies could speak for themselves, then they could be embellished and developed by soloing musicians.
With the evolution in popular music of styles like Rock n Roll, Funk and Pop, the beat and the groove started to take precedence, and there was less importance in melody- the character and presence of the vocalist took over.
If you were going to choose a band or artist in popular music to make instrumental versions of, The Beatles would be a good choice because many of their songs have very strong melodies in that old jazz sense (compared to say, the Rolling Stones!). But the question is, are there enough songs like that in their repertoire to be able to make a full album of material that speaks for itself, just on guitar? Let’s see…
In My Life Has a chirpy upbeat start with flamenco claps, a little like a rumba (e.g. Gipsy Kings). Nice interlude, very ADM harmonies… and then he develops the famous harpsichord-style middle section (by George Martin) into some expressive solos. There are a couple of parts played in the main theme with open strings, that remind me a bit too much of when you tune the guitar though!
And I Love Her: Nice funky riff as the bedrock of this interpretation… not what you’d expect for this tune, which is a pleasant surprise. I read a general note on the album saying claps and “chaca” rhythm are by Hernan Romero- perhaps that includes this track too, where the body of the guitar is tapped like a funk beat would be on the drums. Great solos ADM style… then ending on a major chord like the original, nice touch.
Because: As the previous track, ADM stamps his authority on this one with great rhythmic interplay that enhances what is already a great melody. Listening to this, I find this is the key to successful guitar covers… find something with a great melody, and inject even more interest by specialised guitar techniques and intricate rhythms, for example borrowing from flamenco…
Michelle: Classical style beginning… and the percussion setting a solid beat reminds me of the interaction between cajon and flamenco guitar, like on a PDL album. ADM solos take this melody to different places during this track… and that’s really what’s needed, the more abstract the better, I want to be taken on a journey, away from the original… and it really does that.
I Will: I’m not so familiar with this song (from the White Album), but it doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a guitar instrumental interpretation… just sounds like a series of arpeggios of predictable chords to a set rhythm. Not a highlight of the album… but a nice intro all the same.
Eleanor Rigby: We are now embedded in the middle of the album… and as often happens, the weaker tracks tend to lurk here… and now I have to mention my dreaded abbreviation… EM! From the very start of this track I feel I’m now pushing my trolley through a budget supermarket (where they can’t afford the license to play original versions!) Of course the production quality is great on this… I suppose Al couldn’t resist the chance to get the Abbey Road strings in full effect here… but unfortunately, overall this track feels aimless, you just feel you’ve digested a diluted version of the original by the end.
Penny Lane: There are some nice syncopated phrases on the verse and impressive solos over the chord seqeunce but as the previous track, I have to give this quite a high EM quotient! The question again occurs to me, what does this add to the original?
Blackbird: A popular song to be covered by jazz musicians… and as this was originally a guitar riff, it’s nice to see it developed by a true virtuoso like ADM. The percussion has a bit of a bulerias feel, which gives it a freshness you won’t hear in many covers of this song.
I am the Walrus: ADM has managed to keep some of the eccentricity of this humorous Beatles song… but as the verse only has repetitive two-note patterns to offer, it does make you think, better as a vocal piece.
Day in the Life: Pure EM.
Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite: The complex key changes in this tune work really well instrumentally… Great solos and arpeggios… this is when ADM does what he does best!
With a Little Help from my Friends: A famous guitar instrumental version of this song is the theme to “The Wonder Years”, a big show in the 80s/ 90s. This is approached differently… but a bit like “I Will”, the conventional chord changes give it a but of a stagnant, uninteresting feel. Perhaps I just have an aversion to “II-V-I“s (jazz term)!
If I Fell: Imaginative intro… but then quite a predictable chord arpeggio play through again. I suppose one of the limitations of playing chord melody style with a pick is that you don’t tend to play two notes at once… and the consequence on this piece is that it sounds a bit too fragmented.
She’s Leaving Home: The two-guitar approach here works well… it gives space and the ability for the guitar solo to be more sensitive (like the two guitar version of Cavatina). Also the use of a pick on a nylon string guitar can sound too aggressive, but on this track ADM brings out the quality of the melody beautifully.
With a project like this, it’s all about the choice of material… and also what you’re going to put on the album once recorded. There are 14 tracks on this album and I feel barely half make a musical statement.
I suppose I’ve been spoilt by the vibrancy, originality and energy of an album like Passion Grace and Fire (ADM, PDL, JM)… this album doesn’t reach those heights… but as I’ve already implied, a covers instrumental album is destined not to. Al does show some flashes of brilliance here but my overall feeling is that while this album has a concept, the individual tracks rarely have a concept that grabs the ear.
I hope ADM is going to go back to his own, original style on the next album. Because when he does his thing, he’s unbeatable! I’d also like to see him back on the electric guitar, as he seems to have a unique voice on that instrument… The steel string acoustic is a hard instrument to be original on these days…