Al Di Meola + Hichem Khalfa @ La Maison Symphonique – June 28th 2018

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Al Di Meola Jazzfest

The Montreal Jazz Festival is finally here, June 28th was its first official full day and first in line in one of the best venues available in the city, was the legendary Al Di Meola and his band.

As soon as I arrived at La Maison Symphonique, the ambiance was already exciting, and everyone seemed to be waiting in expectation to what was to be a great night down memory lane. The table with Al’s merchandise was already full of people lining up to buy autographed CD’s and posters.

As I entered the venue itself and took a seat, I was greeted by my neighbors and asked why I was there, especially given my young age compared to the rest of the crowd. My answer does not only account for me being there, but it also accounts for me listening and enjoying good music and looking forward to each concert.

The reason I was sitting there among grey-haired women and men is that of my dad. His love for music and his collection of vinyl LPs, CDs and cassettes are what brought me up as an amateur musicophile and wannabe music critic.

But I am here specifically at the Di Meola concert because that is one his favorite bands, and it is my way of, like everyone else, reconnecting with my past and relive some nostalgia moments when music was also tangible, when things were simpler and when you had to listen to what you owned (over and over again).

The venue itself was not as full as I have seen before, or even as when I saw him three years ago at the site just next to us. Maybe it is because only a year ago he did a one-month residency in and around Montreal or perhaps it was because summer in Montreal is the hardest moment to budget for concerts given the wide choice of bands that visit, or just maybe it was a combination of both factors.

Opening for Al, was Hichem Khalfa and his band, an extraordinary trumpeter residing in Montreal. His group, comprised by Jérome Beaulieu (keyboards), Jonathan Arseneau (bass), Dave Croteau (drums) and himself made for an incredible opener. Whoever decided to pair these two bands for the first night of the festival knew what they were doing.

Hichem brought different sounds into a harmonious amalgamation of jazz with lots of soul. Taking from jazz, middle eastern music, and funk, this band nailed down what it means to be a jazz band in the 21st century, performing with security, synchronicity, and heart. They are a must next time they are playing around the city. In the meantime, go and listen to their latest album “Réminiscences.”

The last time I was at the Maison Symphonique was when Chick Corea visited us for last year’s jazz festival accompanied by Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. Chick, after having listened to one of Al in a recording, called him up and offered him a place at the pioneering fusion jazz band “Return To Forever.” After that, Al’s career as one of the best jazz guitar players in the world climbed higher and higher.

Al revisited this long career during his concert at La Maison Symphonique, in the background, up high, laid a big banner with the most iconic album covers of his career. From his “Elegant Gypsy” album to his latest “Opus” album, passing through his “Electric Rendevouz” and even showcasing his famous 1996 album “The Guitar Trio” with other two guitar legends John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia.

Five minutes before the start of Al’s set, his guitar technician came out and explained to us the dynamics of what we were to expect. First off, the show will be divided into three parts, two electric ones with an acoustic set in between. Secondly, he gave everyone explicit consent to film and photograph the concert without making our backseat neighbors having to see the whole gig through our phones.

Di Meola stepped out along with the rest of his band, and everyone stood up to welcome them in, he spoke briefly about how glad he was to be back in Montreal and how much we were going to enjoy the show.

Song after song, we were witnesses to the history of his music and his evolution as a musician. His band was up to par with his skills, made up of one-third latinos, Phil Magallanes on keyboards, the great Gumbi Ortiz on percussion, the Venezuelan Elias Tona on bass, Luis Alicea on drums and the young Evan Garr at the violin.

Each member had a great story to tell, about how they got where they are and how they made it into the band.

The main highlights were Gumbi Ortiz, the leader and glue of the group, the right hand of Al, who has been with him in many of his recordings and shows for the last 30 years and Evan Garr, a very talented young fan from Detroit who approached Al after his Toronto concert in 2015 to show him how he adapted some of Di Meola’s song to the electric violin, impressing him in the process and immediately being invited to be part of the band on the very next concert which happened to be the one I assisted to at the Jazz Fest of 2015. Beautiful stories that tell us a lot about who Al is and what he is looking for in his music to come.

The band played classic songs such as “Elegant Gypsy Suite,” “Mediterranean Sundance” and “Flight Over Rio” as well as newer masterpieces from his “Opus” album. Each piece was wonderfully delivered and left us in expectation of the next one and then the next one.

At the last song, the crowd stood up and did not give the band more than a minute of rest for the encore. At that time I approached the stage, and everyone remained on their feet for one of the greatest songs in jazz fusion, “Race With Devil On Spanish Highway,” a beautiful, fast song that showcases the virtuosity of Al’s writing and playing, as well as the skills of every one of the musicians.

The night ended, and our collective nostalgia was satisfied, our memories reignited and a feeling of hope of what is to come from jazz in the years to come. Jazz of the past and jazz of the present met, and we might be in good hands for what is to come, beyond nostalgia trips because soon we might not have many more left.

Finally, I am left wondering how my daughters will get to form memories with and through music without LPs nor CDs, and only with streaming music and asking  Google or Alexa to “play music”, which just ends up playing whatever its brain algorithm decides they might enjoy for that day.

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