Al Di Meola Takes His Skills ‘Across the Universe’ on New Album


Al Di Meola | Across the Universe | (earMUSIC)

4 out of 5 stars

It seems like a no-brainer. 

Take a world class guitarist, set him loose on some Beatle songs and Hoover up the sales. 

But that’s not how veteran musician Al Di Meola approaches his interpretations of the Fab Four’s catalog. Rather, the famed jazz guitarist who got his start shredding fusion licks with Return to Forever and has since logged approximately 30 solo albums in both acoustic and electric formats, takes this Beatles-cover business seriously. Those who heard his first crack at the band’s iconic material on 2013’s All Your Life where he tackled 14 Lennon-McCartney tracks, know this is no quick cash-grab. Volume two, arriving seven years later, is just as impressive.  

Di Meola doesn’t simply follow the basics of these 12 additional Beatles gems and one they covered (we’ll ignore the closing 45 seconds of “Octopus’s Garden” sung by his 3 year old daughter). Rather he molds them like an expert potter, maintaining the recognizable melodic structures while enhancing and embellishing the music with multiple guitar overdubs displaying Di Meola’s tasteful speed and intricate dexterity. The guitarist adds his own intro to the opening “Here Comes the Sun” before shifting into Harrison’s defining riff, then infuses a rockier element with a guitar solo, proving how creative and imaginative an interpretation this is. 

Along with various six and 12 stringed devices (detailed in the liner notes for guitar geeks), multi-instrumentalist Di Meola is credited with drums, bass, prominent percussion, keyboards, and even modified vocals on “Dear Prudence,” the latter still remains overwhelmingly instrumental like the rest of the album. Although guests appear to add tablas, brass, strings, trumpet and accordion, this remains primarily Di Meola’s showcase. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the program, as was the case with the former release, is dedicated to ballads. You won’t find “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution” or “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” here. But Di Meola brings unique insight to the material. On “Norwegian Wood,” he highlights the East Indian traits with tablas, making it sound more like a Harrison tune than a Lennon one. Percussion and subtle brass are infused into “Mother Nature’s Son” while keeping the acoustic qualities of the original, even when he overdubs two guitars. The version of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” never an easy or logical Beatles cover, includes brass, strings and more tablas that float about the complex melody, leaving room for Di Meola’s silvery electric tones to play with, and hopscotch around, the main riff.

Every selection is beautifully and meticulously realized, displaying Di Meola’s thought, preparation and arranging skills as he injects fresh ears and unusual twists to these classics after all these years.  Perhaps we could have done without yet another take on “Yesterday,” which is pleasant enough but doesn’t elevate much over a sort of dentist office vibe. The schlocky “Till There Was You,” surely not one of the Beatles more memorable covers, could also have been left on the cutting room floor. Either should have been replaced by the title track which is mysteriously MIA. 

While much of the program is comprised of somewhat logical fare such as “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Hey Jude,” Di Meola digs deeper to work his magic on more obscure titles like the lovely and often overlooked “I’ll Follow the Sun” and even an inventive “Your Mother Should Know.

Occasionally it’s like hearing these songs for the first time as Di Meola accentuates and develops aspects of the underlying melodies for an often idiosyncratic approach to tunes most of us have heard dozens if not hundreds of times. 

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for volume 3.  

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