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JAZZ REVIEW : Tempered Flash Dazzles DiMeola Fans


SOLANA BEACH — Al DiMeola has been championed by Guitar Player magazine since his appearance on the jazz scene almost 20 years ago, winning a dozen awards, including 1992's "Jazz Album of the Year" honor for his most recent effort, "Kiss My Axe," and induction into the magazine's "Gallery of the Greats."

But DiMeola came of age during the heyday of fusion--an era when speed, technique and stunt playing took precedence over taste, composition and harmonic ideas.

When he played the Belly Up Tavern on Wednesday night, it was no surprise that showy lick spewage was largely the order of the evening. He dazzled the sold-out crowd with fairly mind-boggling displays of hyper-speed picking (DiMeola also plays Saturday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano).

But with age comes maturity, and DiMeola, 38, has learned to (at least sometimes) temper his exhibitionist inclinations with a modicum of restraint and genuine emotion in recent years. His "World Sinfonia" album from 1991 was an unexpected delight, an acoustic brew of traditional Brazilian tango music and jazz in which DiMeola laid down the most thoughtful playing of his career.

The Belly Up concert witnessed the guitarist negotiating an uneasy truce between the crowd-pleasing fretboard pyrotechnics of years past and the more heady, intellectualized ideas of the "World Sinfonia" sessions.

Retaining elements of the Latin influence gleaned from the Sinfonia, DiMeola and company--collectively known as the Al DiMeola Project--at times recalled mid-period Santana. Percussionist Gumbi Ortiz' exuberant work was particularly energetic and joyful.

The material for the show was culled almost exclusively from the less adventurous "Kiss My Axe" album, and while that was obviously what the crowd wanted to hear, the journey was less inspired for it.

The Project performed with admirable funk, a great sense of fun and killer chops, but the material constituted little more than a rack upon which to hang extended soloing, no matter how estimable those solos may have been.

The highlight of the evening was the lone (almost) acoustic offering "Morocco"--a raga-like piece that featured an extended keyboard prelude by Rachael Z. It was, however, DiMeola's alternately tender and fiery runs on his acoustic guitar that sent shivers up and down the spine.

Perhaps DiMeola doesn't want to stray too far from his fusion roots for unfathomable musical reasons, or perhaps he simply recognizes which side of his bread the butter's on. But it's frustrating to watch an artist of his vast talent and melodic potential rely so heavily on the cliches of years past, particularly in light of the artistic heights he's capable of scaling.

* Al DiMeola plays Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Coach House,33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.

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