Bringing Latin passion to fusion and the future ~ Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy

A couple weeks ago I offered up three old fave songs from the German jazz fusion group, Passport, then asked for comments.

The silence was deafening. <grin>

But, after a while, there was one comment. Essentially: “boring.”  OK. Fair enough. A followup comment illuminated some issues with the music which I happen to share, but because I love the genre in general, I sometimes ‘hear past’ those issues, and can enjoy — even love — a song on its other merits.

That’s one of the interesting things about music, how personal and historically patterned it is. People and events we associate with music colour how we hear it. If we listen to a selection of music from a particular genre, and we love it or hate it, our appreciation for other music in that genre will be affected by this. That’s because a genre becomes identified by certain key elements. When we identify these elements in a particular song, they cue up our responses to the music. People often turn off their ears and minds to music from genres they’ve come to dislike. Check out the musical likes and dislikes of folks on facebook and dating sites. “Anything but country or rap” is probably the most common description. Even if they don’t completely shut their minds to it, it can be difficult to hear past the genre. It can be unfortunate as there’s quite a lot of great country and rap music available. (I draw the line at Death Metal…good luck finding something I’ll enjoy in that genre.)

What I’m going to do with this post is reintroduce people to jazz fusion by highlighting three songs from Al Di Meola’s album Elegant Gypsy, released in 1977, his second solo effort at the age of just 22. And then, assuming I can work it in, we’ll end with something a whole lot newer but which contains numerous similar elements. (Karen, stick with it ’cause I know you’ll like where it takes you.)

Mediterranean Sundance

Let’s begin with Mediterranean Sundance, the vid for which appears above. There’s an exciting live version I posted on Facebook yesterday, but this studio version is the one I first encountered and fell head over heels for. Not fusion you say? Not even jazz? Well, no, maybe not. But it’s here because of its influence on the artist, on this album, on jazz and on music generally. That’s the kicker with fusion.

You probably think Mediterranean Sundance is an example of Spanish classical/flamenco guitar. Well, no, it’s not that either. There are two or three guitars in play in all of these versions, and all least one of them is being played with a guitar pick. Not a classical playing style at all. That’s where the fusion starts. Mediterannean Sundance is the result of a jazz fusion guitarist playing and composing with a flamenco theme.

People talk about the jazz fusion genre as a combination of traditional jazz forms and rock music, but fusion is where the popular movement of World Music really got kick started. The music I posted by Passport is heavily inflected with Brazilian themes, sounds and thythms. The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti brought in South Asian influences from India. Brand-X went for North African sounds with the Arabic inflected albums Moroccan Roll and Masques. The 70’s and ’80s proved to be a powerful percolater for the mashup of world sounds we now see as commonplace, and nowhere was that mashup more prevalent than in jazz forms, particularly fusion. For decades the Vancouver International Jazz Festival has featured musicians and music from a wide variety of genres, especially blues, African, latin, Brazilian and traditional ethnic folk forms.

If music historians cite the blues as the birthplace of jazz, then the world is the birthplace of fusion.

Elegant Gypsy Suite

OK, let’s move onto something that is very much fusion, Elegant Gypsy Suite. The musical kinship between this and Mediterranean Sundance is evident right from the opening guitar line and encouraged by the latin rhythms underlying it. However, as the composition develops over the song’s nearly 10 minute duration, it modulates and jumps through other modes, including jazzier riffs and some rock chord progressions, a more standard drum kit kicks in and further establishes rock motifs. Meanwhile the keyboard synthesizer inserts a variety of new sonic components.

You might think this is a wildly confused melange of a composition. Go back to Mediterranean Sundance and listen again. You’ll notice it’s also characterised by modal changes, by sections that are very much constrained to the classical guitar motif, and others that run much more toward rock riffs. The composition jumps between the two or three guitars, changes dynamic range, rhythm, tempo, themes, even the emotional content of the music. It’s a complex and sophisticated composition, every bit as much as Elegant Gypsy Suite, except that the latter includes so many more instruments, so many more sounds, and fuses a few extra musical motifs. What makes Mediterranean Sundance easier to follow is the continuity of the acoustic guitar sound, and, perhaps, the organic appeal of that guitar sound. It’s sophisticated music, cerebral, intended to engage the mind, the mind’s ear.

In the mid 70s, synthesizers were still relatively new to popular music and while it was easy to create interesting new sounds with them, it could be quite difficult to create interesting new sounds that were also richly organic. Simple waveforms produced interesting sounds, but not very engaging ones. Thin and sharp, particularly for ears now accustomed to more sophisticated synthesizers, eventually these sounds become uninteresting, even grating. A few synth patches on Elegant Gypsy Suite suffer this fate. Personally, I’m able to forgive them.

Flight Over Rio

Flight Over Rio opens with a saucy little bass intro. Then, after just a few bars, it’s almost entirely spoiled by a weak, grating sawtooth waveform, one of the simplest sounds a synthesizer generates. The notes themselves, given a more pleasing sound or timbre, present a wonderful counterpoint to the bass rhythm just established, but the timbre…oh, sigh, how disappointing, how grating.

The weak synth is a hallmark of fusion, even such accomplished compositional luminaries as Chick Corea and Josef Zawinul fail to synthesize sounds equal to their compositions. Jan Hammer, Elegant Gypsy’s keyboardist, is a notable musician and composer in fusion circles, but his ability to create interesting sonic landscapes comes up well short of his musicianship. Even more confounding is the way Hammer’s synth sounds seem to draw Di Meola’s guitar tones quite close to that sawtooth waveform.

It’s tempting to say Hammer did the best he could with the technology of the period, but progressive rock keyboardists from bands like Genesis (Tony Banks), Pink Floyd (Richard Wright), Yes (Rick Wakeman), Happy the Man (Kit Watkins) and King Crimson (Brian Eno), among numerous others somehow managed to coax rich, luxuriantly engaging timbres from their synthesizers. These sounds stand up, even today, against much more sophisticated sound generators.

It’s a real shame, because I really love this song and it’s hard to ‘hear past’ the quality of the synth sounds. The vibe-like notes played during the keyboard solo barely even ring…there’s no depth to them.

Tijuana Cartel ~ Persian

OK, now hit the FastForward button for 30+ years while jazz fusion percolates and largely falls into obscurity. Keep your finger down and let all that world music fusion continue rumbling. There’s dance. And hip-hop. And turn-tabling, and huge advances in synthesizers, waveform generators, sampling. Music ain’t nothing like Al Di Meola envisioned when he first picked up a guitar in the 1960s. Keep your finger on that fast forward until 2009 and you might find your iPod playlist sitting on this song by Tijuana Cartel, Persian, a song displaying a passion equal to Di Meola and his Mediterranean Sundance, but different from it at the same time.

I have no doubt Paul George, the virtuoso guitarist featured here, is intimately familiar with Al Di Meola, Paco Lucia and John McLaughlin. You can hear the fusion of flamenco and rock, with a little jazzy flair and a melding of rhythms and motifs from genres that have come and gone. It’s not so sophisticated or complex as Di Meola’s compositions from Elegant Gypsy, but that’s not a fault. Tijuana Cartel seeks to engage the body rather than the mind, the target nearly all fusion intended to delight. Persian is not altogether removed from the 33 year-old jazz form, but it gyrates to the strum of a different guitarist.

Moreover, I’m willing to bet Carey O’Sullivan is familiar with several of the fusion keyboardists. If not necessarily Jan Hammer, then Chick Corea or Josef Zawinul, at least. But, oh man, listen to the sounds he produces. Rich, sophisticated. In particular, set your ear for the one that sounds a bit like that sawtooth wave which so disturbingly enters Flight Over Rio’s opening. Now, isn’t that a whole lot more fun?

That said, it’s not hard to see the progression from Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy to Paul George and Carey O’Sullivan playing Persian Live at Coorabel Hall. Even if neither George nor O’Sullivan had ever heard any jazz fusion, the influence of the genre spread its lineage broadly and deeply throughout many existing and developing musical genres of the time, eventually finding their way to a golden coastline in a land downunder.

5 Responses to “Bringing Latin passion to fusion and the future ~ Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy”

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  1. Christy says:

    There are so many points that one could comment on in this post. Being only vaguely familiar with this genre, I won’t try to engage in the technical/historical aspects that you point out.

    In the opening, however, you discuss how people will sometimes get caught up in their like/dislike of certain genres and become stuck in these assumptions. You touch on it briefly, but I think this a key point– what a person associates with a certain genre defines how they listen or even if they are willing to listen.

    Music, being a language of the universal soul, can evoke from the listener intense emotion (as you so beautifully depict in this blog). If a certain sound or artist becomes attached to a bad love affair, it’s near impossible to hear past the pain that music brings. We no longer “like” it. Other genres we outgrow– we’ve nothing left to learn from them– but still we nostalgically hold on because they bring back the memories of youth. Often, it is only the trained musician or avid music enthusiast who will listen and evaluate all music genres based solely on technical merit.

    While I’m personally a musician, technic isn’t what draws me in. I listen to music based on its color and story– I’m driven primarily by the emotion the artist is able to access in me. One genre isn’t capable of accessing all emotions. Each genre tugs at different places, at different times.

    The music you’ve discussed here brings to mind nothing but hot summer nights. There is an aroma in this music that is rare and intoxicating– rum and sweat and sun drenched skin. It fills the corners of the mind so that the listener has no choice but to either block it out or devote full attention to the story.

    The first one… Mediterranian Sundance. I am lost in the story from the first strains. I follow it. I feel it. I love it. The second– Elegant Gypsy Suite. I’m enraptured– at first. I hear the story, I sense the teller. Midway, I’m becoming exhausted. I feel as if I’ve been cornered by the old guy at a cocktail party who is regaling me of his Navy days. This old guy has a scruffy beard and a sticky smell that grows more pungent as his story waxes on. My cocktail is drained by the finish. I am worn down at how much life has just been laid out for me. No, I don’t think the piece is a chaotic, unconnected mess. But I do feel that the story gets convoluted– there are too many details thrown in for me to follow.

    The third– Flight Over Rio… I haven’t your patience. I managed two minutes before the synth sound and the timbre brought on a constant cringe. You make mention of the technological constraints of this period and then go on to note that there were artists who managed to master this task. The rare and gifted artists– the sirens :-)– can serenade the listener with a slide whistle if this is what they have at hand.

    And the last… Persian. Ah! yes! Now I’m fully engaged again. I’ve been rescued from the droning story in the Suite and delivered into the hands of a witty and charming Piper (or acoustic guitarist in this case). Again, there is a scent to this sound… an intoxicating dark fragrance I can close my eyes and be lost to.

    • Patrick says:

      [smile] But if you can only make your slide whistle sound like a kazoo . . . or an air raid siren . . . well, ouch!

      What an exquisite comment, Christy. And, yes, any number of the topics my article touched on could be discussed in so much more depth. Then again, so too with the content of your comment. :-)

      I listen to music for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s for the qualities of the composition and musicianship. I love complex, sophisticated and subtle structures for this, compositions with the qualities of both tapestries and onions. Layers deep. An intricate weave that has one beauty when observed closely, and another when viewed from afar. Jazz — especially the best of fusion — progressive rock, some classical, these are the genres that serve this more cerebral appreciation.

      Sometimes it’s for what the song has to say. I often refer to music as my “Philosophy 101”, so bands like The Clash, and Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, Midnight Oil, Gang of Four…all these and so many others offered alternative views of how the world worked, and I ate them up. It didn’t hurt that much of their music was filled with the qualities that celebrated my more cerebral tastes. In my late 20s I began turning toward women’s voices, literally and figuratively. So, The Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Bif Naked. From a dominance of the cerebral to an increasingly moving affinity to the personal, the emotional, the spiritual.

      Finally, there’s something new…an interest in how music makes me feel…the connections it creates between my inner mental and spiritual self to my own body and the world I move through. There’s something in Persian that does that for me. Much of the present experience flows from a memory of dancing, completely abandoned to the sensations of motion in concert with rhythm and emotional content of the music, on a warm sunny day amidst a mob of dancing mania. The other modality appealing to my growing sense of spirit is mantra and other spiritually oriented ‘new age’ music. (Incidentally, I’d include music not strictly intended for these genres, such as Shakti’s Lotus Feet, which was composed more as an expression of jazz fusion sensibilities, but by a very spiritually oriented group of musicians.)

      For years, I’ve been creating my own mantras from snippets of favourite songs, a habit I first recognised in myself while cycling across china. Then, just over a year ago a friend introduced me to Deva Premal and other mantra and spiritual artists. I was instantly hooked. What’s interesting about this genre is that the best of it is successful — for me at least — on all levels, cerebral, emotional and spiritual.

      On your assessments of all the music, we are almost entirely in agreement. The difference between us may be like the fondness for a long-ago love affair between kindred spirits that drifted gently apart. You meet up with the other, see how much you’ve both changed, recognise that the love affair is long past, but sense still a little of the magic that lives on between you. Then a lovely, lively, passionate Persian comes along, and you hardly feel a need to look back.

      Thanks again…

  2. Karen says:

    Ok Patrick,
    your comment taken onboard and against my better judgement I sat, I read, I listened, hopefully I’ve learned.

    I smiled when I read one of your first comments you discussed, how people get caught up in their likes/dislikes based on past experiences because I was aware that I had conjured up memories of where I was “hanging” when I first was introduced to your jazz fusion – so I had a degree of negativity swirling around me, BUT I decided to take a deep breath, open my mind, my ears and my soul to what I was about to listen to, because for me personally, I believe the emotion that the artist and music can evoke in me very much dictates what I listen to and buy. I want to be charmed and courted, I want to be left begging for more and I want the music and the cadence of music language to stay with me long after the piece finishes…

    So, to the first one:
    Mediterranian Sundance. Is it reaching me? Is it tugging at my feet willing them to dance….just a little bit? Am I following it? Well, yes….ok, you have my attention, I’m ready to concede that maybe I’m too closed minded in what I think I like

    The Second:
    Elegant Gypsy Suite. Similar to Christys comment, this one exhausted me……all I hear is fracture, disorganization, lacking a defined structure. I am trying to distinguish all the sounds, all the instruments and I find it too complex for my listening ear. You’re starting to lose me again

    The Third:
    Again, my comment has to mirror Christy’s – I managed to sit through the 7 minutes, not without a shudder or two. Any hopes I had of this one tipping the scale in your favour were ephemeral – I just can’t gel with this at all.

    But of course you knew you would win me over with your last offering….Tijuana Cartel, a collaboration of flamenco guitar and trumpet, lively and yes, passionate Persian and I come alive, am being intoxicated with the sound, with the rhythm, want to dance to the beat, my senses are hungry for more, my soul is on fire, this one feels like magic!

    So, I think I get it, I think I’m beginning to understand your jazz fusion – not sure I like it though – I will take your advice and stick with it – and yes, I look forward to seeing where it will take me :)

  3. Patrick says:

    Well, you know I largely agree with both you and Christy.

    Elegant Gypsy and Di Meola are highly regarded in fusion circles. The album is considered among the genre’s most influential. And, in its time, it kicked ass, even if some of the compositions are a bit of a workout. Unfortunately, it’s on the weakness of the synth timbres that it really falls apart.

    OK, then, one more try! A new post with four examples of fusion, and I’m sure both of you will enjoy at least one of them.

    Fusion for the jazzily inclined :: Shakti, Brand-X, Return to Forever & Pat Metheny

    Fingers crossed. [smile]

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