At the mere age of twenty-two, Al Di Meola released his first solo record, Land of the Midnight Sun, in 1976, after having already gained considerable acclaim with Chick Corea’s jazz fusion super group Return to Forever, which he had joined only two years earlier. The mid ‘70s was a time when young and extremely gifted guitarists were in abundance, players such as John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Larry Coryell, each of whom were at the forefront of the fusion movement, pushing as well as inventing entirely new boundaries of their own. Di Meola himself was no stranger to innovation, who’s faster than sound abilities were as impressive as they were almost impossible to replicate, at least for many other electric players of his age.
Having been an associate of Chick Corea, meant that Di Meola was able to assemble around him an absolutely stellar cast of musicians. Apart from Corea himself, contributing to this album is Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and Anthony Johnson (all on bass); while on drums we have the inimitable Lenny White, Steve Gadd, along with Alphonse Mouzon. Barry Miles contributes extra keyboards, plus Patty Buyukas rounds things off on vocals. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to break out into a sweat in terms of anticipation. Come to think of it, I’m surprised that Al didn’t also invite Jan Hammer to the party, but then Jan was probably too busy playing with a dozen other acts at the time this LP was being made.
Some of these compositions contain more shifting time signatures than many rock groups could ever hope to explore over an entire lifetime. The album isn’t exactly rock. Nor is it strictly jazz. It certainly isn’t classical. Yet all three styles remain vital to the mix, without which none of this music would be possible.
Take “The Wizard”, the first number, where throughout it’s nearly seven minutes everyone sounds like they’re in competition with each other in terms of who can break the sonic barrier. Di Meola in particular is shredding the scales with a ferocity he was rarely able to indulge in with Return to Forever. I wonder if they all had to have a bit of a lie down afterwards.
The title track “Land of the Midnight Sun” is a nine minute instrumental where Di Meola once again proves his technical aptitude with a dexterity many other electric guitarists could only dream of. My only complaint is that he doesn’t seem all that interested in the emotional aspects of music, as if the composition itself is more important to him than expressing any kind of feeling. “Sarabande from Violin Sonata in B Minor” written by Bach, is a brief, delicate solo piece with Al on acoustic. Side one ends with “Love Theme from Pictures of the Sea”, the only track on the album which has vocals. While Di Meola’s playing is lovely, I can’t say that it’s my favourite tune on here, mainly due to the singing, and although Patty Buyukas has a sweet and beautiful voice, there’s something about it that just doesn’t quite gel.
On side two, Al is joined by Jaco Pastorius and Alphonse Mouzon on the epic (well almost) “Suite Golden Dawn”. Some of Barry Miles’s synthesizers tend to sound a little too space-agey at times, but apart from that, it remains another fine composition, with Di Meola once again going into warp drive mode.
The LP concludes with the energetic and enjoyable “Short Tales of the Black Forest”. Al and Chick Corea work magnificently together, as if they both had ESP, with the former’s acoustic guitar and the latter’s piano interweaving in and around each other to form an extremely intricate dance.
There can be no doubt that Di Meola was, and remains a unique talent. That he achieved so much so young makes his talent seem even more extraordinary. “Land of the Midnight Sun” was an impressive debut from someone who was clearly a master craftsman, whose work is as complex as it is diverse (any guitarist who could perform Bach had obviously done their homework). For any fan of jazz fusion, Al Di Meola is just as essential as any other artist from that era, and “Midnight Sun” is another quality contribution to the genre.