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MUSIC : Fast and Furious : Fusion guitarist Al Dimeola tangos back into the spotlight with a new album and a show in Ventura.


Many a young guitar player from the mid-'70s--this reporter included--shares a common experience. They would hear fusion guitar hero Al Dimeola, then just barely out of his teens, maneuvering the tight turns and furious technical feats in Chick Corea's band Return to Forever--which stopped in Santa Barbara during its heyday.

Guitarists in the audience would walk out, dazed and bedazzled, both inspired and intimidated. How could one compact man produce such volcanic, crisply articulated volleys of notes without spontaneously combusting? What's the point of trying to compete?

Almost 20 years later, after a long fallow period in the '80s, Dimeola is back on the scene to daze and bedazzle a new generation of guitarists, young and yuppified alike.

No doubt members of the crowd at the Ventura Theater, when Dimeola plays there Sunday, will have that same disorienting experience, whether for the first time or in a kind of deja vu .

The fusion boom had pretty well exhausted itself by the '80s. Suddenly, the record industry wasn't returning Dimeola's phone calls and he went four years without being able to release a record.

Ironically, Dimeola's return to favor began two years ago with something completely different from his reputation as an electric guitar conquistador. His fascinating tango-esque project "World Sinfonia" album, with Dimeola on acoustic guitar along with another acoustic guitarist, a percussionist, and the fine bandoneon (a small tango accordion) player, Dino Saluzzi.

The album came about when Dimeola was under the inspirational influence of the great Argentine "nuevo tango" composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla, who passed away just last year.

As a kid growing up in Jersey City, Dimeola's first instrument was the accordion. He also played drums, which may help to account for the notable percussiveness of his guitar style.

Soon after "World Sinfonia" came Dimeola's electric project, "Kiss My Axe," which rose to the No. 2 position on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart.

Music aside, "Kiss My Axe," boasts, for a jazz album, the tackiest cover on the block. Who is that unmasked, unclad model who fondles Al on the front and his "axe" on the back? Did she forget to bring her clothes in her mad rush to the photo shoot?

At first glance, you have to assume it's a satire--a spoof on the macho gunslinger, flanked by his adoring gal in the altogether. But humor has never been Dimeola's forte. He is, for all intents and purposes, the guitar-wielding gunslinger out to tame the West.

Dimeola is an undeniably dexterous player, whose fingers flail with uncanny precision. But his critics complain that there can also be something mechanical about his approach, as he cleanly subdivides rhythms and works up to blinding speed.

At this point, Dimeola is a fusion sage, who has decided opinions about the music's rise, fall, mutation and resurgence.

"There's a general attitude from the hard-core jazz critics about the fusion thing which I kind of understand," Dimeola said in an interview. "It got watered down. There was a glut of it that came out.

"The thing that I didn't particularly like about a lot of the fusion was the lack of harmonic movement in improvisational sections. Really, the essence of great jazz is to be able to play over some hip harmonic chord changes--not just in a technical fashion, but lyrically."

After RTF disbanded in 1977, Dimeola recalled, "I carried the flame for a little while. Stanley went into R & B, Chick went into a very avant-garde phase, and I carried on with that style. And it was very successful for me."

But then came the mid-'80s chill, when Dimeola's attempts at getting a label interested in his projects hit a brick wall. "What was going on was that the trend for signing artists was moving more toward easy listening."

Finally, he found a happy home in the small Tomato label, distributed by the larger umbrella Mesa/Blue Moon company. "It's really good to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond," he explained. "On a bigger label, you could get swallowed."

But, despite the release of his two projects, his frustration was hardly vented. "That's why I named my album 'Kiss My Axe,' " he said, citing righteous vindication. "When I turn on my TV, you see so much junk. Junk. With what I went through in the last four years, you develop an attitude."

He's not a man short on attitude. Dimeola blanches when he thinks about the new pop-jazz music prevalent now, spawned by Kenny G and the WAVE radio format.

"There has been a lot of shallow music out there, forsaking the excitement that was once there for melodies that you can sing."

Dimeola's comeback can be blamed on the tango. Dimeola met Piazzolla in 1985, during a Japanese tour package. "We hit it off immediately as friends," Dimeola said, explaining that plans for the two to collaborate were interrupted by Piazzolla's increasing infirmity.

"Basically, what we did was to expand on that tango form, take the direction he was going and elaborate on it, open up those sections for real improvisation."


Al Dimeola Electric Band at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., in Ventura, on Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18.50. For more information, call 648-1888.

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