When you're as good a guitarist as Al Di Meola, it's hard to avoid using fast fingers as a musical weapon. And Di Meola has sometimes been guilty of precisely that, relying heavily upon his astonishing virtuosity rather than the richness of his musical imagination.
But in his late set at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday, in the opening of a six-night run, Di Meola managed to use virtually all of his creative skills. The numerous guitar fans in the audience were, of course, mostly impressed by the passages in which he revealed that his dazzling technique is as rapid as ever. At 45, he has lost nothing off his high, hard fastball, and every dramatic delivery was greeted with cheers and shouts from a crowd that seemed intimately familiar with every aspect of his work.
Di Meola is about much more than fast playing now, however, having matured into a far more complete artist than he was in his early years. And that maturity was apparent in his own compositions--some from his latest album, "The Infinite Desire"--in his attraction to and use of a wide array of music elements from around the world, in his own occasionally spare and thoughtful soloing, and in his enthusiastic, playful interaction with the other musicians in his World Sinfonia quintet.
The group's title is not just a marketing ploy. Pianist Mario Parmisano and guitarist Herman Romero are from Argentina; drummer Gilad Dobrecky is from Israel; and percussionist Gumbi Ortiz is from the Bronx. And Di Meola was more than willing to bring each of their backgrounds into the musical mix. Parmisano's playing on a pair of numbers by the great Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla--"Libertango" and "Tango Suite"--was stylistically superb, beautifully blending the rhapsodic aspects of Piazzolla's melodies and harmonies with the erotic rhythms of the tango. Ortiz was a lively participant in everything, and the perfect partner for Di Meola in a long, challenging guitar-conga exchange. Dobrecky found a startling catalog of sounds from his drum kit, and Romero occasionally added vocalized humming to his solid rhythm guitar work.
* Al Di Meola's World Sinfonia at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $32 cover today and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.; $30 cover today and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. Two-drink minimum.