October 2003

Al Di Meola - Flesh on Flesh
Telarc SACD-63543
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

As the initial notes of Telarc’s Hybrid SACD Flesh on Flesh began to flutter the mylar of my Magneplaner MG 1.6/QR speakers, I felt almost three decades melt away. There I was again in my childhood bedroom, listening to Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy, grooving to its mixture of jazz, rock, and Latin music. Records like that one helped expand my adolescent musical horizons. Di Meola, along with John-Luc Ponty, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke, defined what jazz was to me back then. And though I’ve grown, both emotionally as well as physically (especially physically), the rush that was rolling over me as I listened to Di Meola’s latest release was no less heady than it was before. Who says you can’t go home again -- at least for a little while?

Flesh on Flesh was recorded at 24-bit PCM by engineer Roger Nichols (of Steely Dan fame) and transferred to stereo and multichannel DSD by Michael Bishop for this Telarc release. There’s a nice sense of clarity to the sound that aids in opening up access to the music itself. Each instrument is given the space it needs to bloom naturally, but Di Meola’s guitars are especially notable -- their sense of presence is startlingly real. The stereo soundstage is wonderfully wide, but not particularly deep, with good instrumental separation. The multichannel mix places the listener within the framework, for the most part, of an audience seat. The rear channels are discreetly mixed -- no over-prominent instrumental sounds emanating from behind the listener -- so the feeling of the music being created right in front of you is naturally correct. An excellent job by Mr. Bishop. The multichannel mix also creates more of a sense of depth to the soundstage, another plus for multichannel playback.

Does the fact that this is not a pure DSD recording but 24-bit PCM detract from its abundant musicality? It does not. A good recording is a good recording, no matter the format used, and this is a good recording.

But form without function is moot -- Flesh on Flesh has to stand on the quality of its music. If you’ve long been a fan of Al Di Meola, this Hybrid SACD will bring a smile to your face and cheer to your heart (and ears). For those of you who have not had the pleasure of making musical acquaintance with Di Meola, this disc makes for a joyous introduction. Di Meola alternates (at times, within the same tune) between slashing, rock-driven electric guitar work and a more laid-back Latin acoustic sound, and he incorporates the improvisational aspects of jazz into both approaches. Yet, while the effort that Di Meola puts into this album is plainly evident, it is the seeming effortlessness of his playing that will capture your attention. For no matter how dense or driven the music becomes, it’s always apparent that the guitarist is a master craftsman.

Di Meola plays with energy and fire on the opening track of Flesh on Flesh, "Zona Desperata," and exchanges a bracing series of riffs with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcala. By contrast, he plays with great delicacy on the Latin-tinged "Fugata." But the tune that will most impress Di Meola novices (and excite devotees) is the closing number, Chick Corea’s "Senor Mouse." Di Meola has played this tune with Corea many times, but he revisits it with the creativeness he’s acquired in the 25 years since he first recorded it on his 1978 album Casino. Here, it becomes an almost funky Latin dance tune, anchored once again by the bass work of Anthony Jackson (who played it with Di Meola on Casino). Throughout the tune, Di Meola alternates between two different acoustic guitars, a Conde and an Ovation. It’s one of the joys of this album, due to its clarity, to attempt to pick out when he switches instruments.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Flesh on Flesh is the sheer joy that permeates Al Di Meola’s guitar work on an album that truly defies categorization. One could call it modern fusion, or Latin, or even rock, but doing so would miss the point. Flesh on Flesh is what Duke Ellington would have called "good music." Thanks to Telarc for reuniting us with Al Di Meola on an album -- and a medium, SACD -- that allow his musical genius to express itself so clearly.