DIMEOLA IN SIZZLING PERFORMANCE AT TOAD'S

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If you know anything about Al Di Meola, it won't surprise you that he turned in a sizzling and precise guitar performance Thursday night at Toad's Place in New Haven.

After all, he has been perhaps the foremost jazz guitarist for almost two decades, since he flashed onto the scene as the teenage wonder of the all-star jazz band Return to Forever in 1974.

But the Di Meola who so satisfied the 200-or-so fans in New Haven was also passionate, playful, expressive and engaging, not to mention a fairly persistent huckster.

Some who have pretended to know Di Meola's music over the years, while conceding his technical excellence, have doubted his emotion, saying that he was fast, but that he had no feeling. Such folks should have been at the show; he played with flourish and abandon.

His playfulness was evident throughout the one-hour, 45-minute show, beginning with his first of several mentions of "Kiss My Axe," his latest recording and the first of "The Al Di Meola Project." "Kiss My Tuchus" was how he first introduced it.

When someone called out to pump up the volume on his guitar, he called back to sound mixer Richie Kool, saying "the customer is always right." And it seemed he did play louder from that point on.

When another fan asked him to play "Race With Devil on Spanish Highway," a career landmark from his second album, "Elegant Gypsy," he responded, "Race with the what?" and then combined a smirk with a conspiratorial nod, as if to suggest it was still to come. And it was, as the finale, fused with the other twin tower of his early solo career, "Egyptian Danza" from the 1978 release, "Casino."

Most of his selections were from the current album, which combines the electric ferocity of the early years with his somewhat more ethereal air of more recent offerings.

Most members of the project had their chances to shine, although bassist Tony Scherr, 26, who might have been expected to step out a bit since he was playing in his hometown, stayed in the background.

Keyboard player Rachel Z. took the spotlight several times, most notably during a solo opening the set's fourth song. In introducing her, Di Meola mentioned she has an album of her own out. Judging from her play, this album won't be her last.

Percussionists Gumbi Ortiz and Richie Morales took less time with their solos, but the former lent whimsy -- he eked out a few bars of "Smoke on the Water" from his congas -- and the latter brought relentless intensity.

Di Meola ended the encore with yet another plug, saying the band would be at the Ritz in New York tonight, "for those of you who dare. And bring a friend!" For those of you who dare but care not to drive that far, they also play Sunday night at the Sting in New Britain. If you want to witness guitar virtuosity or just have a good time, you'll want to be there.