Al Di Meola Faced the Rain at Ottawa Jazz Fest

Confederation Park Stage, June 26

Photo: Kamara Morozuk

BY Luke PearsonPublished Jun 27, 2024

It was the wrong day to forsake the tented OLG stage (see you another time Commotions) for Confederation Park's open-air setup: it poured through pretty much the entirety of veteran Latin jazz fusionist Al Di Meola's set, to the point where there were often more water removal technicians (aka beloved festival volunteers) on stage than musicians. So, it was a bit of a slog, but for the five hundred or so dedicated fans that remained, it was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to relish a rare Ottawa appearance from one of the real towering figures of Latin jazz, second in impact probably only to Carlos Santana (though the debate likely still rages).

 He and his band (bass, keys, drums and video-screen favourite Gumbi Ortiz on hype and additional percussion) offered up that refined combination of professionalism and assured reliability that only a legacy act can provide. There was no hunger, no vivacity or exuberance really, but there was definitely (and exactly) ninety minutes of tight, expertly arranged jazz fusion spanning a decades-long catalogue, delivered by focused professionals who tend not to move too much these days. You check this one off your list.

A heart attack last year (the "incident in September," as referenced on stage) has nudged Di Meola toward a focus on earlier material, and although the sound of applause tended to enjoy its own fusion with the beating rain, it was clear the crowd was pleased with most of the selections here — a cut from his early days with the legendary Return to Forever drew special notice. While there was definitely some cheer-inducing shredding from Di Meola here and there, the band settled into a mid-tempo groove fairly early and didn't much leave it, with lots of room for liquid, laid back solos from the man himself, as well as some rich textures from Philippe Saisse on keys, who was definitely getting the most from his double-decked rig, giving us three settings at once sometimes. Ortiz had a never-ending bag of percussive tricks as well, using and discarding instruments in a single bar, and always filling out the space with chunky, complex rhythms.

And although it was easy to get lost in the groove, it was even easier to get caught off guard by some of the nimble changes in time-signature — these guys really are like the Dream Theater of jazz (a statement that drew approving nods), and hearing everyone dime-stop on a sixty-fourth before jumping into the next groove is the reason you stand through the rain for these venerable acts. It was a shame though — the weather really did lessen enjoyment considerably (let's be real), although one droll individual who kept yelling "more rain" during the conventional chants for an encore drew a few smiles. Despite it being very much scheduled according to online setlist connoisseurs (thank you dripping man in green), this encore never came, and there were likely some in the audience who didn't really miss it. 

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