This is a good (1976) debut by electric/acoustic guitar virtuoso Al Di Meola, who originally came to my attention through his work with jazz rock outfit Return to Forever. Al is truly a musician’s musician, which is why my orchestra/jazz band cronies and I would pore over every note of this album in high school.
The lineup on Land of the Midnight Sun (1976) brought together some of the finest musicians in the jazz rock realm and Al (6 and 12 string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, synthesizer, and percussion) is joined by several electric bass guitarists: Anthony Jackson (1, 2), Jaco Pastorius (5), Stanley Clarke (4); and drummers: Steve Gadd (1), Lenny White (2), and Alphonse Mouzon (5). Rounding out the core lineup are keyboardists Chick Corea (6) and Barry Miles (2, 5); percussionist Mingo Lewis (1, 2, 4, and 5); and female vocalist Patty Buyukas (4).
I think it goes without saying that these folks are all first chair performers and the playing is simply jaw-dropping. Al in particular dazzles throughout with his rapid fire scalar runs on both the acoustic and electric guitars. He also demonstrates that he is reasonably adept at composition/arrangement too, including some of the longer jazz rock/prog pieces such as Land of the Midnight Sun, Suite-Golden Dawn, and the delicate, shorter piece Love Theme from “Pictures of the Sea”.
At the heart of this album are three riff-heavy tracks that boast warp-speed ensemble playing and impossibly difficult time signatures – The Wizard, Land of the Midnight Sun, and Suite – Golden Dawn. Fortunately however, the album is also fairly diverse and ranges from the three, highly electric jazz rock/progressive rock rave-ups to a pleasantly subdued adaptation of a Bach piece played on acoustic guitar. Other quiet pieces include the duet between Chick Corea (acoustic piano) and Al (acoustic 6 and 12 string guitar) on Short Tales of the Black Forest.
Additional splashes of variety in timbre/texture include the Latin-flavoured percussion playing of Mingo Lewis; the combination of the female vocalist and Stanley Clarke’s vocals on “Pictures of the Sea”; and the breathtaking interplay between the mind-blowing and intricate (yet funky) bass lines of Jaco Pastorius and Al’s precise, staccato bursts of notes on the electric guitar (Suite – Golden Dawn). Unfortunately (for this keyboard lover), the use of keyboards on the album is somewhat subdued – Al may have wanted to focus on more a guitar-based sound, although the few instances of electric piano and synthesizer use are impressive, as is the acoustic piano playing of Chick Corea.
Although this album has not been remastered, the sound quality is actually fairly good. The liner notes are very skimpy however.
All in all, this is a good album of proggy jazz rock with enough spice and variety that it kept my interest throughout. Land of the Midnight Sun is recommended along with the excellent follow-up album Elegant Gypsy (1977) to those fans of both progressive rock and jazz rock.
In 1976, 22 year-old guitar wunderkind Al Di Meola rleased his first solo album. LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN was an impressive effort for the young Di Meola, and remains a very satisfying work of vintage fusion.
As a member of Chick Corea’s highly popular and trailblazing Return to Forever, Berklee grad Di Meola had no problem attracting a stellar cast of musicians to join him in the studio. Bassists on the album are fretless pioneer nonpareil Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report), plus Di Meola’s RTF band mate, the great Stanley Clarke — at the time the only fusion bassist able to rank with Pastorius for fame and influence.
Further bass duties are ably fulfilled by highly-sought session man Anthony Jackson, who’d played on a host of major pop, rock and jazz recordings, and is credited with inventing the six-string electric bass. On keyboards are the virtuoso Chick Corea himself, as well as one Barry Miles. Miles was a former child prodigy who’d been a dues-paying professional musician from the tender age of nine, and a jazz veteran by the time he cut his first solo album at fourteen. Miles has been labeled “the founder of fusion” owing to his experimental, multi genre- blending 1964-65 work with what he then dubbed “syncretic music.” (He still works with Di Meola, and appears on the guitarist’s 2006 CD CONSEQUENCE OF CHAOS.)
On drums, meanwhile, are three heavyweights: The first is none less than Steve Gadd, a former US Army drummer who at eleven had sat in for a set with Dizzy Gillespie. Seasoned sessioneer Gadd could command top dollar from stars such as Eric Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, Steely Dan, B.B. King, James Brown, James Taylor, George Benson and Chuck Mangione ? indeed, anyone who could afford his rate. (Di Meola’s budget has Gadd on one track here, the up-tempo opener “The Wizard.”)
The second drummer is jazzman Lenny White, Di Meola’s Return to Forever cohort, who’d played on Miles Davis’ landmark BITCHES BREW. No slouch on the skins, White’s résumé rivals Gadd’s ? he’s worked with major musical names like Joe Henderson, Woodie Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Gato Barbieri, Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller and Stan Getz — perhaps you’ve heard of some of them? (White appears on my favourite piece here, the epic title track.) The album’s final drummer is Alphonse Mouzon, who was at the time a veteran of guitarist Larry Coryell’s fusion outfit Eleventh House. Mouzon’s Wikipedia entry identifies him as a former drama, music and medical student, an actor/composer/arranger/producer, and the current chairman/CEO of Tenacious Records.
Besides Coryell, he’s worked with (brace yourself): Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Lee Ritenour, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Chubby Checker, Patrick Moraz and Tommy Bolin, and been a member of Weather Report. Whew! A certain Robert Plant named Mouzon as one of Zeppelin’s major influences — did I mention that Mouzon acts in Hollywood movies, too? Under-achiever Alphonse keeps the beat(s) on what is perhaps the proggiest selection here, the near-ten-minute, three-part “Suite Golden Dawn.” (“Golden Dawn” also features Jaco, busily bubbling and funking unmistakably away on his fretless).
Finally, sometime keyboardist, composer and percussionist extraordinaire Mingo Lewis (who’s also played with bloody everyone, from Return to Forever, to John Mclaughlin, Santana, The Tubes, Todd Rundgren, XTC, Eno & Byrne, to blah blah blah blah blah) provides bongos, congas (likely, everything but gazongas) on four of MIDNIGHT SUN’s six cuts.
So, you ask, What’s the music like? It’s great, of course! Latin-infused fusion with oodles of Di Meola’s trademark lightning-fast, percussive picking predominates, but there’s even a brief bit o’ Bach — an acoustic offering to further showcase Al’s expansive range. Standout tracks include the aforementioned, Lewis-penned “The Wizard,” plus Al’s acoustic guitar and piano duet with Corea on “Short Tales of the Black Forest.” My favourite, though, has to be the uplifting and engagingly varied title track, a Di Meola composition on which Al, Mingo and Mr. Miles especially shine.
Land Of The Midnight Sun is about as polished, varied and downright enjoyable a slice of classic jazz fusion as you’ll find. Al Di Meola has been voted by Guitar Player’s readers as “best jazz guitarist” no less than four times, and guitar historian Robert Lynch has said: “In the history of the electric guitar, no one figure has done more to advance the instrument in a purely technical manner than Mr. Di Meola.” (Wikipedia) Listening to Land Of The Midnight Sun, you can discover what all the well-deserved praise for Al Di Meola is about.
Al Di Meola is undoubtedly a legendary musician, and despite the fact that I have devoted the best part of the last seven years of my life listening to heavy metal, I often came across his name, hearing and reading about how great and influential he has been, not only to jazz musicians but to musicians across the board. And when Glen Drover included a great rendition of Al Di Meola’s “Egyptian Danza” in his solo debut “Metalusion” this year, it only succeeded in further piquing my interest. Other than that cover, I had honestly never heard his music.
But now that I’ve decided to delve into the wonderful world of jazz, the first artist I’m laying focus on is none other than Di Meola. I wanted to start right from the beginning, so I paid a visit to Amoeba yesterday to pick up his debut album on vinyl. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation in me as I held that huge piece of artwork, took out the vinyl, placed it on my turntable and started listening to it.
“The Wizard” gives the album a very Latin start. Di Meola’s guitar, synth and percussion combine together to create insane harmonies, as the song makes a journey through multiple tempo shifts. The tune is nothing short of mind-blowing, and makes a long-lasting impact on the listener’s mind straightaway. The sheer range of Di Meola’s musical abilities is quite evident even in these mere 6 and a half minutes.
The title song keeps a similar style going, but in the process it provides yet more delightful musical passages that vary from each other but are brilliantly arranged together to somehow make the tune sound like a cohesive unit. The bass sound is also quite a lot more prominent in this one as compared to the opening track. The song is over 9 minutes long, but I have come across countless number of songs that are of equal or longer duration, and don’t even come close to being as musically rich as this one.
A short acoustic guitar piece titled “Sarabande From Violin Sonata In B Minor” comes next. There is nothing quite as mentally liberating as the pristine sound of an acoustic guitar, and when it’s being played by someone like Di Meola, it’s even better. So needless to say, I’m glad that the album includes an acoustic guitar piece by itself. This is followed by another soft little piece of music titled “Love Theme From Pictures Of The Sea”. Besides the sounds of the acoustic guitar, electric guitar and traces of percussion and synth, for the first and only time on the album you’ll hear vocals.
Side B has just two tracks, the first being a three-part opus titled “Suite Golden Dawn”. I would say the titles of the three parts, “Morning Fire”, “Calmer Of The Tempests” and “From Ocean To The Clouds” are completely justified as the music creates images that go perfectly with their respective titles. The tune moves beautifully from part to part as they blend very smoothly into each other. Di Meola and his posse of musicians offer a whole plethora of music, creating 10 minutes that can truly be savored.
The album comes to a perfect ending, with veteran musician Chick Corea joining in with a composition of his own, titled “Short Tales Of The Black Forest”. Not only did he write the complete song, but also played the piano and marimba on it, making it quite a unique track that stands on its own when compared to the rest of the album.
Overall, this album is every bit as great as I had expected it to be, and then some. From this it’s pretty clear that the brilliance of Al Di Meola was there for everyone to see, even at such an early stage of his career, and I can imagine how this album must have provided the ideal launching pad for the rest of his career, inspiring Di Meola to keep creating music that in turn became a huge inspiration for others who were fortunate enough to be exposed to this piece of music when it was actually first released, exactly nine years before I was born.