The jazz fusioneer Al Di Meola discusses the evils of stage carpeting and the quest for the latest Armani cologne…
What was the first gig you played and how did it go?
“The first gig was at a Veterans Of Foreign Wars facility in New Jersey where I grew up. I must have been 10 or 11; it wasn’t really a gig, it was just the first time I played in front of an audience in my hometown.
“My first professional gig was at Carnegie Hall when I was 19 and performed with Chick Corea and Return To Forever. Highly unusual that you start off at Carnegie Hall! I’d left Berklee two weeks before, went home and told my parents,‘I’m playing Carnegie Hall in a few nights…’ and they thought it was a joke!”
What’s on your rider?
“Diet ice tea, chicken, salmon, coffee, sandwiches, bread, white wine, water, fruit… When we do acoustic gigs I need a chair. If it’s an electric gig, I might not.
“I have two different kinds of format that I play. In Europe, I play mainly duet, trio or quartet, acoustic only. In America, I’ve been going back to the old format of electric from my early days, reliving that whole experience. And it’s different because it includes backline that I wouldn’t need on an acoustic gig.”
Describe your current stage rig…
“For electric, I have a very sophisticated multi-pedalboard running through a Fuchs amp. Acoustically, I use a microphone and I have a line from my guitar, using an RMC pickup that picks up the natural sound of my guitar and also accesses a divider into my Roland VG-88, so I can blend in, with a footpedal, three particular sounds that I like at certain times within the music.
“One is a 12-string sound, one is a bass sound and one is a Les Paul, so I can actually do it on my acoustic nylon. As far as an amp is concerned, I use a little AER acoustic guitar amp. My guitar is a Conde Hermanos; they have an Al Di Meola signature model now, with a cutaway. And I use D’Addario extra hard tension nylon strings.”
What’s your best tip for getting a good live sound?
“Always try to set up on a hardwood floor, if you can. Face the speakers backwards and hope that the hall has good acoustics so you can hear the balance of the PA and surrounding stage sound. If you have an ambient sound, it makes your instrument sound 10 times bigger than it actually is because you’re being engulfed by the room coming back at you.
“Usually, those rooms have more reflective types of material - hardwood is always the best, carpeting on stage is a total nightmare. There’s always one out of about 20 gigs where you’ll get a crazy person in a theatre who thought carpeting was a good idea!”
What’s the best heckle you’ve received at a gig?
“I’ve never been heckled!”
What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?
“There’s nothing that I can’t do without. I use a specific kind of toothpaste, I love to have my brand-new version of the newest Giorgio Armani cologne. I need to have my white shirts without a collar and my vests, which have become a kind of a signature stage outfit. I need to have at least one Armani black suit that I don’t wear on stage, so if there are events happening while on tour, I have it.”
What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?
“The best thing is to have a strong composition to keep them engaged. And, also, as years have gone by, I’ve learned that talking, maybe sharing a little story between songs, helps you develop a warmer rapport with the audience and it kinda pulls them closer and opens them up a little bit, when you feel loose enough and good enough to be able to do that.
“If you’re a little nervous beyond a certain level, they tend to clam up. In early years, I’d go from one song to the next and not talk too much, but it’s good if you’re feeling really good and confident - why not describe where the song is coming from, where you wrote it or if there’s a little story behind it, or if it’s meant for someone? Audiences love that.”
What’s the best venue you’ve played in, and why?
“In London, it was at the Royal Albert Hall and the Hammersmith Apollo - they both have great acoustics. Barcelona, Palau de Música. New York City, Carnegie Hall. These halls have the perfect acoustics for guitar in particular due to the design and ambient reverb effect that’s a result of the materials used in their inner shell.”
Which airline, as a musician, do you find is easiest to travel on?
“Lufthansa. The best service and best organised airline - it’s heads above all the others. Just a fact!”
What’s your favourite live album?
“The Who’s Live At Leeds, released in 1970 when I was just 16… I was a big fan when I was a kid. I know Pete now, we talk quite often, mostly via email, but we talk on the phone, too. I remember when I was a kid, when that record came out, how powerfully it struck me.
“There are other live albums: there’s Astor Piazzolla live in Central Park [Astor Piazzolla: The Central Park Concert], which is also a great live album. I just put out a live album that I didn’t know was as good as it is. When I first heard it, 10 years ago, we were in the middle of a tour and I said, ‘I think we had better shows…’ but 10 years go by and you hear it fresh, and you go,‘My God, this was great!’”