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

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

joni

Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.

Technology Catches Up With Technique: Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets

Allan_Holdsworth_-_1989_-_SecretsIntima Records, released May 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989

8/10

Some time around the late ’80s, I became a bit disillusioned with the major UK music mags (but continued to love Q). Their infinite search for ‘coolness’ coincided with my increasing interest in playing bass and guitar, so I started checking out American mags such as Musician, Guitar World and Guitar Player, as well as Guitarist here in the UK. Their focus seemed to be on the mechanics of/intentions behind making music rather than puking in hotels or haircuts.

I think I first heard guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s name via a Guitar Player cover interview to promote his Secrets album. I hadn’t yet heard a note of his music but his intelligent, exceptionally modest (some would say mordant) approach to playing drew me in, as did his endorsement of sax players (Brecker, Coltrane, Parker) rather than the usual guitar influences. Also he mentioned that he had been working with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, another name that I had heard with relation to Frank Zappa but had never really properly investigated.

By chance, I came upon Secrets a few months later in a bargain bucket. £5.99, if I remember rightly. From the first bar of the opener ‘City Nights’ (a typically nimble salvo around the kit by Vinnie) I was blown away. Holdsworth’s solo is burning, with loads of notes spraying out everywhere, but it’s also totally devoid of clichés. He repeats the trick all over Secrets, with Vinnie and bassist Jimmy Johnson prodding and cajoling him every step of the way.

It’s also refreshing to hear Allan blowing over lots of major chords in ‘Joshua’, the sort of tune which might be a bit soppy in the hands of Metheny or Abercrombie but is transformed into a stunningly fluent series of solos alongside Colaiuta’s brilliantly unhinged accompaniment. ‘Spokes‘ is a nicely arranged vehicle for Allan’s nutty synthaxe playing (and some more Vinnie/Jimmy genius) and, on ‘Endomorph‘, Holdsworth even comes up with a very moving song inspired by the death of his father with some excellent vocals from Craig Copeland.

Though his playing was always brilliant, Allan’s investigations with various types of guitar synthesis had lent some of his improvisations a ‘cheesiness’ earlier in the ’80s leading to a few less-than-essential albums (with the possible exception of  ’85’s Metal Fatigue). This is not to say that his other albums aren’t worth checking out, but I’d go back to his work with Bill Bruford and Tony Williams in the ’70s rather than earlier ’80s collections.

But Secrets is the one where technology really caught up with his ingenious concepts. All lead guitarists are on an endless search for tone and Allan seems to have found his ideal one here. It’s smooth yet fiery and he genuinely achieves the ‘sheets-of-sound’ style of improvising that he so admires in his favourite sax players by utilising incredibly wide intervals (for a guitarist) and legato phrasing.

His playing is as instantly recognisable as Wes, Van Halen or Scofield’s. It’s not easy music, though. But, as he lamented in the interview mentioned above, it’s not that difficult and he always wished it was more popular.

Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta

Secrets was the first in a trio of superb solo albums (and some sterling sideman work with Chad Wackerman) which continued with Wardenclyffe Tower in ’92 and Hard Hat Area in ’94, all of which are pretty essential listening if you like his vibe.

Within a year of Secrets coming out, I’d seen Allan live whilst at university in London and also checked out his month-long guest spot with Level 42 at Hammersmith Odeon throughout December 1990 (and some brilliant solos on their Guaranteed album). I was becoming a major fan and have been ever since. I’m glad he seems to have got over a bout of illness a year or so ago and is busy on the touring front again. Long may he run.