Al Di Meola was still a member of Return to Forever when he released his second solo album, by which time he was already a formidable talent, whose lightning-speed riffs were virtually unmatched by any other electric guitarist of the era. Some have even described him as the Jimi Hendrix of Jazz fusion (John McLaughlin is perhaps a more likely candidate for that moniker, but Al certainly isn’t far off). However the one quality Di Meola doesn’t have is the earthiness of Hendrix, which means that his ability to connect with the average rock listener is somewhat limited, and unless you’re the sort of person who likes their guitar raw and unpolished, and with a sprinkling of pure emotion, then Di Meola is probably not for you.
Opening with the stylish and sophisticated “Flight Over Rio”, both Di Meola and Jan Hammer (in the 70’s one couldn’t make a jazz fusion album without him playing on at least one track) get to battle it out together in what is the musical equivalent of pugilism. And when Di Meola and Hammer aren’t trying to knock each other out with their virtuosity, there is some inspired South American percussion (courtesy of Mingo Lewis) one usually only expects to hear on a Santana album, to complement what is, overall, a rather intense journey. Thankfully we slip back from fifth gear into second with the romantic “Midnight Tango”, a rather visual piece, where one can imagine oneself resting with a glass of wine while looking out over the Alhambra beneath a full moon. And while we’re on the subject of Spain, the acoustic “Mediterranean Sundance” features none other than one of that country’s most prominent and popular guitarists, the inimitable Paco de Lucia. How Di Meola persuaded Paco to record with him I have no idea, but at least it offered the non-Spanish world what would have been in all likelihood their first opportunity to hear the master of Flamenco, who could play even faster than Di Meola! The famous Friday Night in San Francisco LP (recorded live with Di Meola, Paco, and John McLaughlin) was still a few years away, so it’s interesting to hear the two playing together at this time. And while Paco ultimately leaves Di Meola in the dust in terms of pure technique, Di Meola still manages to hold his own, which in itself is nothing short of remarkable.
On “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway”, definitely the centrepiece of the album, we get to hear more of the sort of shredding Di Meola is famous for. Lots of energy on this one. It’s no wonder he was popular with metal guitarists, who were often partial to doing a little machine-gunning of their own (however I can’t imagine that they were all that crazy about some of the Latin instrumentals). Return to Forever’s Lenny White plays drums, confirming that he was undeniably one of the finest jazz fusion drummers of his generation. Perhaps even one of the finest in general.
“Lady of Rome, Sister of Brazil” is a lovely solo acoustic number, and just the sort of thing you could put on the stereo in order to prove to that special lady that you’re no meathead when it comes to musical sophistication (although if she tells you how much she loves In Utero then that will probably do just as well). The last track “Elegant Gypsy Suite” is an epic instrumental (well, every song is an instrumental) which has numerous style changes and sections that prevent the listener’s attention from straying, and at over nine minutes in duration that’s a pretty big ask. All the instruments blend together seamlessly, creating a wonderful synergy, but ultimately it’s Di Meola who is leader, whose six strings sizzle with subtle erudition and complex pyrotechnics throughout.
One thing’s for certain, Elegant Gypsy was a fairly unique album for its day, and one that would establish Di Meola as a jazz fusion star in his own right, and not just that shit-hot guitarist who played in Chick Corea’s band. Naturally the critics loved it. And while Al Di Meola’s playing style may be a little wanting in the emotional department, one thing which cannot be denied is the extraordinary virtuosity on display here. I mean, how many other guitarists were capable of unleashing a torrent of heroic riffs one moment, only then to break out into a soft romantic interlude the next? Not many in 1977, that’s for sure.