Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians. There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to be a guitarist’. Allan really was that. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, and was feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.

From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.

The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches. He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!

The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ track from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.

In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth. In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.

He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.

An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career. Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it. It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.

The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons). He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.

Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson. Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.

The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery (who will be presenting his own personal tribute to Allan on his Progzilla Radio show this Sunday at 6pm UK time) adapted some of his techniques to great effect. Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’

I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.

A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.

Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.

Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017

Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert

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9 thoughts on “Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

  1. I was lucky enough to see Allan in the mid-1970s with The Pat Smythe Quintet, Ian Carr’s Nucleus and Soft Machine. He was a phenomenal player and knocked my socks off every time. His across-the-bar phrasing, extraordinary harmonic sense and leaping runs took conventional post-Coltrane and Miles jazz into new realms. A huge talent who never got the credit he fully deserved. RIP

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  2. A wonderful tribute to a master musician. Well done, Matt. My introduction to Holdsworth came via the Tony Williams Lifetime album “Believe It,” which I first heard in high school. It was easy to connect the dots from him to EVH at a time when Van Halen was at the peak of their DLR-era powers, and I’ve always enjoyed watching jaws drop any time I played Holdsworth for a friend. I only saw him once, back in college in support of the “Sand” album. Needless to say my own jaw dropped many times that evening. RIP, Mr. Holdsworth.

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    • Thanks Rich for adding your memories. Yes, he often had that effect on people! ‘Believe It’ was a great place to start. I remember hearing ‘Mr Spock’ on the radio about six months after I’d first heard Allan on that Stanley Clarke track, and I slowly started connecting the dots from there. So many memorable moments in his discography.

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    • Thanks Mr VC. I need to check out the Gong album, I think I’ve only heard a couple of tracks. I don’t know a lot of Allan’s pre-Tony Williams work. ‘Velvet Darkness’ is an interesting one – Allan claimed that Creed Taylor only gave them a few days in the studio and subsequently decided to release their rehearsals as the finished album! But I guess with musicians as brilliant as Holdsworth, Alphonso and Narada involved, whatever they do is gonna be worth hearing.

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      • True. It’s definitely worth hearing. I listened last weekend as part of my Holdsworth Homage and enjoyed it. From what I know of your fusion tastes, I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy it too!
        Gazeuse and Espresso II are the Gong albums to seek out.

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