Guitarist Al DiMeola and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba have performed together as part of DiMeola’s band, the New World Sinfonia. But Tuesday night’s performance at the Dakota jazz club was their first time playing as a duo, and the start of a national tour. Both musicians are virtuosos who bring classical technique and Latin influences to jazz improvisation. DiMeola, who began his career in the spotlight back in the early 1970s as a member of Chick Corea’s jazz-fusion juggernaut “Return to Forever,” has crafted a signature guitar style that combines complex syncopated rhythms with the sophisticated harmony of jazz and classical music. In recent years, he has spent much of his time exploring the music of the late Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, who was a mentor and friend to DiMeola. The first few tunes of the opening set on Tuesday, March 20, were pieces DiMeola recorded with the Sinfonia on his most recent CD, 2010′s “Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody.” The duo opened with “Siberiana,” followed by “Mawazine” and “Brave New World.” With impeccable precision, DiMeola used a flat pick to play his acoustic guitar, and he also made judicious use of a few electronic effects to add sustain and fatten his tone, at one point producing a violin-like sound. He was not hampered by the lack of a rhythm section, using his left foot to tap out tempos with metronome-like precision. Playing a number of tango-influenced compositions, he employed gentle arpeggio sweeps punctuated with percussive, briskly-strummed chords. Rubalcaba, one of several brilliant pianists to emigrate from Cuba in recent years, also displayed flawless technique and mastery of sonic nuance. The set also included DiMeola’s beautifully rearranged solo version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”At one point, DiMeola exited the stage so Rubalcaba could perform an original solo composition. The piece featured some simple but eloquent left-hand harmony that evoked the style of French composer Erik Satie. DiMeola and Rubalcaba closed their opening set with the guitarist’s intensely-played composition “Turquoise.” DiMeola and Rubalcaba will perform again at the Dakota at 7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday. Their Dakota engagement was extended from one to two nights because of the cancellation of a scheduled concert by harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans.
Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician in Minneapolis.