July 2, 2024

Guitar wizard Al Di Meola is not easy to pigeonhole. His blistering electric guitar licks first entered the public consciousness in the mid-70s, when he was a teenage prodigy with jazz-fusion pioneers Return To Forever. But Di Meola’s heart is in flamenco, an inherently acoustic genre. His career has vacillated between stunning, Latin-flavoured acoustic jazz and proggy electric tones over the last 50 years, sometimes both on the same album, sometimes exclusively one or the other. His technical mastery of the instrument cannot be denied, but what this new album Twentyfour demonstrates with jaw-dropping clarity, is his extraordinary talent for composition.

Twentyfour is a predominantly acoustic set, with subtle, minimal percussion for the most part, and crystal-clear production values throughout. It reportedly started life as a standard acoustic project narrating life during the COVID lockdown, but took on a life of its own, evolving over four years to emerge as an 80-minute extravaganza. Scheduled for release as the man turns 70 years of age, it opens with the simply-named Fandango, which is also the lead single. This seven-minute epic starts as a  mellow guitar backing, with the lead melody coming in as a simple acoustic line, punctuated by his trademark virtuoso improvised sections. Various textures are contributed from rapid-fire but lightweight percussion, with additional instruments in the background. It’s upbeat and happy, with the overdubbed guitars and instrument timings spot on. The melodic theme becomes submerged as it cycles through a complex musical maze, and one could be forgiven for thinking it would be the showpiece of the album, and that the guitarist could take it easy for the remainder.

Not the case though, as every number reflects the same depth of imagination and musicality. The very next track, Tears Of Hope, is a slow acoustic piece which starts on a flute or recorder, soon joined by a string section. There is some lovely, neat interaction with a simple piano line, which follows marginally behind the guitar, but then at 3½ minutes, there is a change to a more up-tempo, energetic section with bongos and a driving, but still subtle, drum line. An electric guitar takes over and the piece gets gradually harder.

Esmerelda is more flamenco, with two overdubbed answer-backed acoustic guitars. But then, the intriguingly-titled Ava’s Dance In The Moonlight is a noticeably more melodic and accessible piece, albeit in 5/4 time. It builds to a strident electric guitar solo, and becomes quite rocky, and not surprisingly, has also been released as a single – you can view the featured video at the foot of this page. The album is a fascinating tapestry of guitars over imaginative percussion sounds and layered instrumental textures, and it’s not until track 9 that we have a more conventional, full-band piece entitled Close Your Eyes. It features more conventional drums, if still very subtly presented, and an actual bass guitar.

The backbone of the set, arguably, is a trio of numbers named Immeasurable parts 1, 2 and 3. Part 1 is a 10-minute epic in its own right, starting on a simple, muted rhythm in 6/8 time on an acoustic guitar, while a second acoustic does all the heavy lifting. This is immediately followed by part 2, a much shorter piece with an eastern flavour. Part 3 follows a couple of numbers later, and it’s pure jazz, with varied percussion and some tremendous soloing.

It’s difficult to pick out specific highlights in such an outstanding set of numbers, but one of my favourites is certainly the second single, the four-minute For Only You. It is a highly complex jazz-classical solo composition played on a single acoustic guitar, lovingly crafted and perfectly executed. The following piece could hardly be more of a contrast; Genetiki is an electric guitar full-band prog number with electronic drums. An acoustic guitar duets with an electric in an obscure time signature, but then the rhythm changes just before two minutes, morphing into a great acoustic backing riff with electric soloing over the top, before dropping back to the original theme again.

The fourth and latest single is also the only vocal piece in an otherwise instrumental set, the Spanish-language ballad Eden. It features the mellifluous voice of SIUXX, from the Valencia-based electro-rock outfit The X. The whole album runs to 15 numbers and 80 minutes of breathtaking virtuosity. It’s really not background music; this is an album that genuinely repays some concentration and appreciation under a decent pair of headphones. I can hardly believe the veteran guitarist is still knocking it out of the park like this. It’s tremendous.

Twentyfour by Al Di Meola is available as a double LP or single CD from 19 July 2024 via earMUSIC