Sunday, November 20, 2016

Al Di Meola - 1980 [1990] "Splendido Hotel"

Splendido Hotel is an album by Italian-American jazz fusion and Latin jazz guitarist Al Di Meola released in 1980 as a double LP, and later CD.

 Talk about ambitious. This two-LP set finds guitarist Al di Meola performing with his quintet of the time (featuring keyboardist Philippe Saisse), with studio musicians, solo, in a reunion with pianist Chick Corea, singing a love song, and welcoming veteran Les Paul for a version of "Spanish Eyes." Most of the music works quite well and it shows that di Meola (best-known for his speedy rock-oriented solos) is a surprisingly well-rounded and versatile musician. 

 A lot has been said about Al Di Meola and his music outside of Return To Forever. Overall he tends to be viewed as a musician of extremes. He either embodies what are viewed as fusion’s best or most unflattering qualities. And there’s a lot of truth on both ends. He is a master musician with an ability and playing dexterity, from mild to wild that you could believe. On the other hand his music could be overly technical and sometimes presented him more as a musicians musician than anyone out to entertain or be intensely creative.

Debates aside he entered the 80’s at a time where even in fusion poppier, more compressed musical sounds such as the type Bob James and Quincy Jones were starting to pioneer became the acceptable standard. The question was would Di Meola, one of the purveyors of the most pyrotechnical variety of fusion be able to adapt to the change. Actually he did an excellent job and delivered one of the strongest albums of his career.

This albums eleven songs find Di Meola moving through a series of songs in many different styles, mostly showcasing his more flamenco style of guitar playing as opposed to the rockier variety and, by and large avoiding anything too melodramatic. “Alien Chase On The Arabian Desert”, “Dinner Music Of The Gods” and the slower “Isfahan”, all between 8 and 11 minutes a piece all have a strong late 70’s/early 80’s latin rock flavour similar to the kind of music you’d find on Santana’s Marathon or Zebop from the same era.

Since leaving Return To Forever, Al Di Meola has gradually developed a reputation as of the most accomplished (and tasteful) guitarists in the contemporary jazz field. In the present age, the consensus seems to be that his more questionable mannerisms of earlier times (which often led to the accusation that his playing was completely without emotion) are a thing of the past. Di Meola clearly rates among the best guitarists in his field, and has the respect (if not always the direct admiration) of most members of the interested public.

Splendido Hotel, however, is an album from an earlier time. A product of the age of jazz-fusion, it straddles the period of time separating his "early" and "late" careers. A case could be made that it leans more towards the former than the latter.

This is not, of course, to be necessarily regarded as a bad thing. If his early works are sometimes criticized for self-indulgence, his more recent endeavours (like those of John McLaughlin, his occasional musical companion) have often been regarded as too "safe" -- achieving respectability at the cost of some of the original creative spark that originally set his career in motion.

Splendido Hotel has moments of daring musicality, matched with occasional moments of unfocused rambling. The good generally prevails over the bad, but there are some moments in which the struggle is about even - there's also one complete misstep, but we'll get to that later. For the most part, this is an ideal jazz-fusion album for those wishing to make somewhat of a risk in their purchasing habits -- it's not a complete triumph from the first note to the last, but those "highs" which do exist more than make up for the "lows".

The album begins with "Alien Chase On Arabian Desert" (a title which might seem vaguely familiar to owners of a previous AdM album). After a brief "sci-fi" introduction on keys, AdM unfolds a work of rather extreme internal diversity, shifting from one "scene" to another in a rather rapid manner (as per the "film" connotations of the title, I suppose). The track "proper" begins with overtly "Arabian" guitar and percussion lines (only an expansive musical setting, presumably not unrelated to desert imagery). This then leads to a "chase scene", which generally sets the basis for the rest of the work. The guitar lines are impressive throughout, and the Zappa-esque percussion from Colon is a nice touch. After an "ascending" guitar section (vaguely similar in form -- and perhaps content as well -- to "The Fountain Of Salmacis"), the chase scene begins anew, leading eventually to a surprise ending on a more conventional fusion arrangement. This is, in sum, a curious montage of numerous themes related more by visual/plot matters than actual musical themes. Still, it's extremely impressive throughout, and works as a coherent whole. The second-best song on the work.

This leads to "Silent Story In Her Eyes", the second "extended suite" in a row. This one, sadly, is held back somewhat by one of its component parts. It begins in a promising enough manner, with a somewhat classically-oriented acoustic guitar performance. This, sadly, leads to a somewhat "dinner music (and not of the gods)" section, with fairly light accompaniment on drums and percussion to a lead melody that, on its own merits, isn't really of much note. Di Meola is still in good form throughout this section, but the arrangement leaves much to be desired. Then, a third section of the song emerges, revealing a switch to more substantial fusion themes (including a strong keyboard presence) with enough quirkiness to generally save the track. AdM provides another virtuoso performance here, and Corea does his part well. The track then adopts a somewhat soft-sell "conclusion", quickly reprising with (sadly) the mediocre second section of the song (albeit with this of the irritating percussion). This one is a bit trying at times, but there's ultimately enough quality material here to justify the high rating.

Saisse's "Roller Jubilee" is far from the most essential thing here. A xylophone introduction leads to a full band arrangement (led by acoustic guitar). From here, a fairly interesting jazz-era-Zappa melody develops ... or, rather, it should develop, but ultimately becomes weighed down by its repetition. There's nothing terribly wrong with the track, but it never really "breaks through" with a strong statement of its potential musicality.

"Two To Tango" is better, a Di Meola/Corea duet featuring a haunting melody which is not disturbed by AdM's displays of technical virtuosity throughout. I don't really have terribly much else to say about this piece -- it's quite good, and shows both musicians in impressive form.

And then we come to another "montage" track. "Al Di's Dream Theme" begins in a manner oddly reminiscent of the infamous second section of "Silent Story In Her Eyes", albeit somewhat better -- cocktail jazz, and not really all that essential. Perhaps this was simply meant to represent the artist's slow journey into a state of dreaming -- an abrupt shift leads to further "sci-fi" musical themes, thereupon leading to a soaring guitar line over equally impressive bass and percussion lines. This "actual dream theme" lasts considerably longer than the middling first section, and features some extremely good guitar soloing (as well as some sparse moments). The lead melody is quite good. Di Meola deserves credit for this one.

"Dinner Music Of The Gods" begins with a deliberately jarring guitar line (proto-prog-metal?) over another appearance of the aforementioned FZ-esque percussion. The guitar leads which emerge as the first section develops are quite impressive. A slight shift brings Landers's bass to a more dominant position (the bass and the drumming, I might note, are quite good throughout as well). AdM's picking techniques on the Fylde acoustic are worthwhile, as is the harpsichord-esque section in mid-track. Though some might accuse the artist of self-indulgence on this piece, it's ultimately one of the best things here. As with previous long works on the album, this is somewhat of a "montage" work.

"Splendido Sundance" begins with an acoustic passage which struck me, upon the listening session for this review, as being strongly rooted in Mediterranean traditions. Not surprisingly, the piece from there onwards turns out to be an alternate version of "Mediterranean Sundance" (from AdM's Elegant Gypsy album). This version, of course, has some very impressive moments, though one might wonder if (i) AdM places a bit too much emphasis on rhythm guitar accents, and (ii) if it's really necessary. Still, another well-performed version of AdM's trademark tune isn't much to complain about.

After this comes the tragedy of the album. "I Can Tell" features only AdM and Saisse as contributing musicians; it would not be beyond reason to suggest that it would have been difficult to "sell" the piece to the other musicians on the album. The piece is, essentially, the negation of everything else on the album -- a sub-mediocre pop-fusion track that might be best described as "Steely Dan gone horribly, horribly wrong". The attempts at mingling jazz and pop themes sound terribly hackneyed, the cliched vocals are an embarrassment, and AdM's limited vocal skills suggest that the very idea of the track may have been doomed from the start. A brief instrumental section is tacked on at the end of the work; it's good, but not enough enough to seriously improve the rating of the song. This is the sort of track for which "skip" buttons are made.

Things improve again with a version of "Spanish Eyes", featuring a guest appearance from Les Paul (by the way ... no matter what the credits say, I can clearly hear Paul's distinctive guitar stylings coming from my right speaker, making me wonder if I have a slightly defective copy ... oh well ...). As a "song-oriented" jazz track fashioned in the style of turn-of-the-decade fusion, it's fairly enjoyable; as against this, the arrangement could probably have been improved somewhat (not much seems to be holding the track together).

The triumph of the album is "Isfahan", a track co-written by Corea. The work begins with the Columbus Boy's Choir singing the Arabic love song (in English, of course) without musical accompaniment. After this, a string quartet emerges, accompanied by Di Meola and Corea. The choir eventually returns, after which the musicians shift to more distinctly Arabic themes. While a mere description of the song's structure cannot clearly convey the merit of this track, it is easily the best number here -- befitting of the jazz-fusion tradition at its best while partaking in completely different forms as well. One might wonder if this really can be considered an "Al Di Meola track" per se, but it's no less beautiful one way or the other.

And, finally, the album ends with "Bianca's Midnight Lullaby", a brief acoustic guitar solo from AdM. This is a rather gentle piece, somewhat classical in structure (as befits the title). This seems an appropriate way for the album to end.

While this album won't appeal to everyone, it would certainly be appreciated (for the most part) by those interested in the jazz-fusion genre. Recommended as such.

Tracks Listing

1. Alien Chase On Arabian Desert (8:59)
2. Silent Story In Her Eyes (7:35)
3. Roller Jubilee (4:44)
4. Two To Tango (4:13)
5. Al Di`s Dream Theme (6:50)
6. Dinner Music Of The Gods (8:33)
7. Splendido Sundance (4:51)
8. I Can Tell (4:01)
9. Spanish Eyes (5:11)
10. Isfahan (11:35)
11. Bianca`s Midnight Lullaby (1:54)

Total Time: 68:26


    Al Di Meola: Guitars, mandocello, percussion, keyboards, drums, vocals.
    Les Paul: Guitar on "Spanish Eyes".
    Anthony Jackson: Bass guitar (tracks 2, 3, 5, 9).
    Tim Landers: Bass guitar (tracks 1, 5, 6).
    Chick Corea: Acoustic Piano (tracks 2, 4, 10).
    Philippe Saisse: Keyboards, Marimba, Vocals (tracks 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8).
    Peter Cannarozzi: Synthesizer.
    Jan Hammer: Moog Solo on "Al Di's Dream Theme".
    Robbie Gonzalez: Drums (tracks 1, 2, 5, 6).
    Steve Gadd: Drums (tracks 3, 9).
    Mingo Lewis: Percussion (tracks 2, 3, 5).
    Eddie Colon: Percussion (tracks 1, 2, 5, 6).
    David Campbell: Violin.
    Carol Shive: Viola.
    Dennis Karmzyn: Cello
    Raymond Kelley: Cello.
    The Columbus Boychoir.