Jazz Album Review: Guitarist Al Di Meola Fuses the Beatles in “Across the Universe” Tribute

By Jason M. Rubin

All in all, this album is a pretty easy recommendation for those who like Al Di Meola and/or the Beatles.

Across the Universe, Al Di Meola (earMUSIC)

The Beatles were a commercial sensation from their first recordings in 1963, but it took a while for the group to be acclaimed by “serious” critics. A 2014 Saturday Evening Post article on the press’s initial disdain for the Beatles noted that “Newsweek’s music critic pronounced them ‘a near disaster.’ They were ‘not merely awful,’ sniffed William F. Buckley, but ‘so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical … that they qualify as the crowned heads of anti-music.’” Even Quincy Jones, who has had his share of pop success, confessed in a 2018 New York Magazine interview that his first impression of the Beatles was that “they were the worst musicians in the world.”

And yet, gradually, most critics were able to distinguish the Beatles’ unique musicality from the morass of Top 40 dreck that took over the radio waves in the ’60s. Jones aside, it was the jazz community that first embraced the Beatles as a legitimate source of inspiration. As early as 1966, Count Basie recorded an album of Beatles songs. Not to be outdone, the Buddy Rich Big Band opened its 1967 live album Big Swing Face with a big-swinging version of “Norwegian Wood” that stands as this writer’s favorite cover version of a Beatles song (“Norwegian Wood” is also this writer’s favorite Beatles song). Ramsey Lewis (1968) and George Benson (1970) also released albums dedicated exclusively to the Fab Four while the Liverpudlians were still extant.

So it should come as no surprise that jazz fusion whiz kid Al Di Meola, whom Chick Corea plucked out of Berklee College of Music in 1973 when the speed-demon guitarist was only 19 to join the fusion supergroup Return to Forever, has come out with his second all-Beatles foray. As a sequel to 2013’s All Your Life: A Tribute to the Beatles, Across the Universe reflects a deepening immersion into the Beatles’ oeuvre. While All Your Life featured mostly acoustic guitar with some hand percussion, Di Meola does a Paul McCartney on the new album: he plays almost all the instruments himself, including electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and drums. Also, the cover image on Across the Universe is a direct take-off on John Lennon’s 1975 solo album Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Except for “Till There Was You,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” “Yesterday” (which would seem to have been an obvious choice for the mainly acoustic All Your Life) and “Norwegian Wood,” the 14 selections this time out skew later in the Beatles’ career. The selections include “Golden Slumbers Medley,” “Dear Prudence,” Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Hey Jude,” and “Here Comes the Sun.”

“Here Comes the Sun,” the album opener, is a good representation of what the whole set is like. The fact that the melodies are so familiar makes them incredibly pliable; in other words, Di Meola can take them in any number of directions and the listener never loses the core sense of the song (in the case of “Sun,”  there are elements of prog rock and heavy metal decorated with acoustic filigree). His tangential explorations elongate the tunes (most are in the four- to six-minute range), but his mastery of theme and variations guarantees that he never strays too far from the source material.

Some of the tracks are less adventurous than others. “Every Mother’s Son,” for example, remains a gentle, primarily acoustic ballad just over four minutes in length. Surprisingly, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is also played rather straight, with the famous intro and outro done pretty much according to original specifications. “Hey Jude,” on the other hand, is shorter than the original, but goes down all sorts of interesting avenues, including flamenco. Also to the good: it doesn’t dwell too much on the interminable refrain of the Beatles’ version (which to these ears has always gone on way too long). Similarly, tabla adds an Eastern tinge to “Norwegian Wood,” though in this case the song is stretched out to six minutes — three times the original’s length.

“Till There Was You,” the earliest Beatles tune referenced (their cover of Meredith Wilson’s song from The Music Man appeared on 1963’s Meet the Beatles) is given the most straightforward fusion treatment of the bunch. Di Meola shows that his fingers are as speedy as ever and his articulation remains just as remarkable. At the other end of the spectrum, his all-acoustic arrangement of “Here, There and Everywhere” is stripped down, romantic, and lovely. Across the Universe ends oddly with a 46-second version of “Octopus’s Garden,” complete with vocals from the guitarist’s young daughter.

All in all, this is a pretty easy recommendation for those who like Al Di Meola and/or the Beatles. The album is more a labor of love than a groundbreaker, but these days there’s something to be said for clinging to the familiar. Di Meola had been scheduled to perform two area shows in April, which, of course, were canceled due to COVID-19. His April 3 date at Cary Hall in Lexington, MA, has been rescheduled for September 27, 2020; and his April 5 show at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA, will now take place on September 25, 2020.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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