George Graham reviews Al Di Meola's "Across the Universe"
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The Graham Album Review #2029

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Al Di Meola: Across the Universe
by George Graham

(E-A-R Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/3/2020)

While most rock musicians play original music, the great majority of jazz artists perform so-called “standard tunes” known by many, but given life by the improvisational nature or the creative arrangements in their performances. Most of those so-called standards came from musicals or films, from the Tin Pan Alley composers of the day, but the who were not really considered performers as such. And over the years there have been so many recordings of songs by composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Richard Rogers that there are no really definitive versions.

In the rock world, with the preponderance of music played by the composers, performances by others are called “covers” and always beg comparison to the originals. Of course, the creative performer can put his or her own stamp on a composition and perhaps give it new life. And number of artists have done tribute albums, spotlighting a particular writer like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. But when it comes to something as iconic as the Beatles songs, there is a definite risk – there have been so many Beatles covers over the years that it would seem to be hard to come up with new ideas. And of course, the original Beatles recordings and musical arrangements have become so ingrained to the ears of generations, that the comparisons to the originals become almost inevitable, and the cover artist had better have something interesting to present.

This week, we have a whole album of Beatles covers by jazz-rock fusion guitarist Al Di Meola, and it’s called Across the Universe.

New Jersey-native Al Di Meola has been prominent on the scene since the early 1970s, when he was recruited at the age of 19 to become a member of Chick Corea’s fusion band Return to Forever. He is certainly a household name among guitar fans, and over the years, he has released dozens of albums, three of which achieved gold sales status. He has also collaborated with artists ranging from Paul Simon and Phil Collins to Herbie Hancock and Frank Zappa, and even Luciano Pavarotti. As a youth, he grew up listening to the music of Elvis Presley, the Ventures and the Beatles. He writes that it was the Beatles who really inspired him to take up the guitar. And Di Meola recorded an album of Beatles covers back in 2013, in a mostly stripped down acoustic guitar setting. The new album revisited the Fab Four’s songs, with somewhat more elaborate arrangements, but in keeping Di Meola’s recent work, he plays primarily acoustic guitar, and brings in his now trademark flamenco and Latin American influences. He takes up 14 of the Beatles’ songs, with almost all of the instrumentation played by Di Meola himself with multiple guitars, electric and acoustic. The result is something of a mixed bag, with some tracks working better than others. There are instances of Di Meola bringing in some of the same sounds and distinctive instruments as on the Beatles’ original, and then going off in a different direction, and others bringing in an entirely different approach, such as flamenco influence, which Di Meola has been doing quite a bit in recent years. Sometimes the arrangements are creative and focused, and at other times, they can go from one musical idea and sound to the next, seemingly at random. As usual, Di Meola’s guitar work is impressive. One of his main axes on the album is a flamenco style nylon string guitar, though he gets out his electric and shreds a little from time to time.

Opening is one of those arrangements that is sort of all over the place, Here Comes the Sun which can sound a bit like an argument between the acoustic guitar and the electric arrangement. The drum machine for percussion doesn’t help. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the better arrangements comes on Dear Prudence which works well with the flamenco influence, which is more focused on this track. <<>>

One Beatles song you almost can’t go wrong with is Norwegian Wood. Di Meola rises to the occasion treating the piece with some of the musical trademarks of his recent work. Adding a tabla to the mix is a nice touch and the acoustic guitar work is especially brilliant. <<>>

The arrangement of Strawberry Fields Forever starts out with the same mellotron line as the original. <<>> So that immediately invites comparison, and Di Meola goes from sounding like the original to off on a kind of frenetic electric jam. It comes off as rather scattershot. <<>>

The most covered Beatles song is Yesterday which has long been a lounge-singer’s standard. To his credit, Di Meola hews mostly to the original ballady direction with a pair of acoustic guitars, very tastefully played. <<>>

Perhaps the album’s most pleasant surprise is one of the lesser-known Beatles songs, You Mother Should Know. Di Meola again gets into flamenco influence, but it really works well for this tune.

Another familiar tune given an arrangement that creatively takes it far the original is Hey Jude with an interesting pastiche of sounds including an accordion. <<>>

Jazz trumpet great Randy Brecker makes a guest appearance on I’ll Follow the Sun and he adds a nice touch to the flamenco influenced arrangement. It’s another highlight of the album. <<>>

There have probably been hundreds of albums devoted to covers of Beatles songs over the years, some obviously more interesting and artistically worthwhile than others. Guitarist Al DiMeola has now done his second collection of Beatles songs on Across the Universe. With so many Beatles covers around, it’s not easy to stand out. But Di Meola’s new release is largely successful. His blend of guitar virtuosity and eclectic ingredients from acoustic flamenco flourishes to cranked up electric shredding, provides a wide pallet of sounds to draw on. Sometimes the result can be fascinating, but also some of the album’s best moments are the more scaled-back intimate performances. And there are times when the arrangements kind of whipsaw from one style to another within a tune. Still, the album makes for generally enjoyable listening, especially for those who are already fans of Di Meola work.

Our grade for sound quality is about a “B.” The mix can be quirky at times with the overdubbed guitar parts not blending particularly well into a coherent sonic space, and seeming separate from each other. And the drum sounds are clearly from a drum machine or samples, rather than sounding like real drums. But the acoustic guitars sound warm and have good clarity.

Al Di Meola obviously has great love for and draws inspiration from the music of the Beatles. He returns the favor and applies his considerable musical abilities and creative resources to the Fab Four’s compositions. As Beatles cover albums go, Across the Universe is one of the more engaging I have heard.

(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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