Al Di Meola was just 19 years old when he joined one of the biggest instrumental ensembles in the world. The brilliant acoustic/electric guitarist replaced Bill Connors in the celebrated jazz-fusion band Return To Forever in 1974, joining keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White.

“I literally was a kid in terms of knowledge and experience, not just about music but the world,” Di Meola says, pausing to reflect during a recent phone interview. “Things sort of escalated quickly and my life really changed.”

From that foundation, which eventually yielded three hit albums and a Grammy award, Di Meola’s reputation as a marvelous improviser, soloist and band contributor was firmly established. Then the 1976 solo debut Land of the Midnight Sun revealed his writing skills and versatility. Since then, he has consistently distinguished himself with a string of outstanding releases showcasing different bands and styles.

He comes to Nashville for a Friday night date at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Concert Hall with his current band New World Sinfonia, which he proudly says “is doing the most rewarding and challenging music of my career. These are compositions where sonics and volume don’t overpower anything. The two most important aspects for me are the improvisational element, the jazz base, and the melodic development. With New World Sinfonia these things are always in perfect balance.

“I know we’re in a period where there doesn’t seem to be the interest in world music and international sounds that was happening only a few years ago. But I’ve found that live audiences still enjoy and interact positively with the music. Indeed, live performance is what I’m emphasizing the most now, because that’s what keeps things going. The time it takes to go into a studio and make a recording, then you have to get into the marketplace and there are so few people now buying physical CDs that the risk/reward ratio is very low. By contrast, people are still listening to music in great numbers and responding and reacting to live performances.”

New World Sinfonia includes Fausto Beccalossi on accordion, Peo Afonsi on acoustic guitar, Victor Miranda on bass and dual percussionists Peter Kaszas and Gumbi Ortiz. The band’s menu covers everything from flamenco and tango to experimental jazz, blues, traditional folk, or songs with Latin and African rhythms and influences.

The group’s diversity reflects not only Di Meola’s 20-plus recordings and the array of genres they cover, but his many other remarkable collaborations and sessions. He’s led both an acoustic guitar trio with Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin and a unit called the Rite of Strings with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and bassist Clarke. Di Meola’s recorded and performed alongside opera legend Luciano Pavarotti and tango master Astor Piazzolla, then turned around and worked with pop stars Paul Simon and Dave Matthews as well as Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Carlos Santana. For Di Meola, the issue is never category but inspiration and quality.

“I’ve always gravitated to musical situations where I was able to combine the things that intrigue and attract me the most,” Di Meola says. “Those are the improvisational element with folk melodies and traditional rhythms from around the world. I’ve always written on the acoustic guitar because I find that developing the story, finding the melody, works best on acoustic. You can do things there in terms of scales and arpeggios that really aid you in building the melody. The electric gives you a sonic power that can be breathtaking.

“They are distinct instruments, and I always let the song dictate which instrument will work. But I’ve never really thought about doing something from the standpoint of category or genre. It’s always been, is this something that is musically rewarding?”

Besides his World Sinfonia tour, which will continue through the year, he’s now collaborating with another keyboard giant, the fiery Cuban player Gonzalo Rubalcaba. “He’s the greatest pianist in the world today,” Di Meola says. “His touch, range, sensitivity and technique are astonishing, and he’s an amazing writer as well. I was stunned when he told me that he liked and respected my music because that’s certainly how I feel about him.” They are writing songs, and Di Meola hopes to eventually do some projects with him, both with World Sinfonia and as a piano/guitar team.

Though he briefly joined former comrades Corea, White and Clarke for the 25-year Return to Forever reunion tour in 2008, Di Meola says that experience put a cap on his RTF life and fusion identity. “It was fun for a while to revisit those years and songs, but quite frankly I much prefer the music that I’m doing today,” Di Meola says. “I’m no longer really interested, either in writing or playing, in that style for a number of reasons. The volume that’s needed to make it work for one.

“Second, I’ve moved into a different world in terms of the music I hear in my head now. I want to keep exploring sounds from around the World. North African music, Latin, Cuban, and seeing where it all fits in with the things that I’ve always done, and how you incorporate the jazz foundation into it. That’s the challenge for me today.”