Allan Holdsworth (Sound Waves 2012)
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH By Walter Modliszewski
Although jazz/rock fusion icon Allan Holdsworth is not the most well-known guitarist on the planet, he certainly is one of the most influential. Chances are, if you asked any modern guitar virtuoso (in any style) to name their favorite guitarists, Allan would be at or near the top of the list. Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Neil Schon, Alex Lifeson, John Petrucci, and Jimmy Herring are just a small sampling of today’s guitar greats that have fallen under the spell of Allan’s remarkable playing. The one thing that this diverse group of Allen Holdsworth aficionados has in common is that they all probably wish that they could play guitar like Allan Holdsworth.
To most casual listeners, the defining characteristic of Allan’s playing is the jaw-dropping speed that he exhibits during his solos. In fact, the speed of his fingers dancing along the guitar fretboard has been compared to the speed of a hummingbird flapping its wings while hovering in midair. After seeing Allan perform live, one would certainly confirm that this is no exaggeration. However, it must be noted that his accompaniment abilities are equally as impressive as his soloing abilities. Allan possesses a seemingly endless vocabulary of exotic sounding chords, and he applies them tastefully to perfectly suit his very complex and unique music. This combination of dazzling lead playing and tasteful rhythm playing has made Allan Holdsworth the envy of legions of guitarists throughout the world.
Allan was born in Bradford, England in 1946, and he took up the guitar at an early age. He progressed rapidly while learning to play blues and rock and roll, and then later incorporating jazz and classical influences into his playing. By the early 1970’s, Allan had established himself as one of the finest (and most original) guitarists in London’s local jazz and rock circuits. During this period, legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams selected Allan to be the lead guitarist for his new lineup of the seminal jazz/rock fusion outfit, Tony Williams’ Lifetime. This amazing group released “Believe It” in 1975 and “Million Dollar Legs” in 1976. Allan’s incredible playing on these two landmark albums firmly established him as a force to be reckoned with.
After parting ways with Tony Williams, Allan contributed his unique guitar skills to several more landmark fusion and instrumental rock albums, including Gong’s “Gazeuse” (1976) and Jean-Luc Ponty’s “Enigmatic Ocean” (1977). Then, in 1978 he joined the progressive rock “supergroup” U.K. along with former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, former King Crimson bassist/vocalist John Wetton (later of Asia), and a brilliant young keyboardist/electric violinist named Eddie Jobson who had played with Frank Zappa and Roxy Music. This group’s self-titled debut album became what was later considered to be the last of the great milestones of the 1970’s progressive rock era. Based upon the explosive guitar solo featured in the opening song “In the Dead of Night,” it is not difficult to understand why Musician magazine named “U.K.” as one of the top ten rock guitar albums of all time.
Shortly after the release of the group’s debut album, Allan and Bill Bruford left U.K. to form yet another supergroup, which was simply named “Bruford.” After recording three amazing records with this group, Allan somewhat reluctantly departed in order to form his own group. For his major label debut, Allan enlisted a young phenom named Chad Wackerman (who had previously played with Frank Zappa) on drums. The result was 1984’s Grammy-nominated “Road Games.” This excellent record established a long musical relationship between Allan and Chad that continues to this day.
Allan is currently working on a new record with a brand new trio featuring bassist Jimmy Haslip and the much-vaunted Australian drummer Virgil Donati (a.k.a. the Thunder from Down Under). In advance of the record’s release, this new lineup performed an explosive set of new and classic tunes on March 23rd at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT. During this remarkable performance, the trio displayed the synergy of a group that had been together for dozens of years.
I spoke with Allan shortly before his recent performance in Norfolk, and our conversation is excerpted as follows:
I understand that your most recent recording is for a Chad Wackerman solo project. Please tell me about this new record.
The album is titled “Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations.” The recording of this album was spread over a very long time. His last studio record was released almost as long ago as mine. We started recording some of the tracks in Australia about eight years ago, and then he just kept adding to it. It was a long process, and we recorded a few tracks at a time, and he recently decided that he finally had enough tracks to put out an album. So that was that.
Chad has a long history of playing drums with your group. I realize that you have worked with other drummers as well, but your new lineup features Virgil Donati on drums instead of Chad. How did that come about?
I wanted to do something a bit different for my new record, and I haven’t done a new studio record in over ten years. The way the music was going, it was just a bit different. That’s all. So I asked Virgil to play on the record, and he plays amazingly on it. So it seemed like a natural thing to do. Even though the album is not quite finished yet, it’s a good way along, and I just decided to do it with Virgil and Jimmy Haslip.
Virgil is mostly known for playing very heavy progressive rock. Are you planning on taking your music in a more rock-oriented direction with this new lineup?
It’s a little bit more that way than my last studio record, which was a little bit softer. But that’s good. I just wanted to let it go where it goes. I wanted to do something different, and then all this time went by. I had a lot of music that was already recorded, but I decided that I didn’t want to use it because it was kind of “time-locked” into that same period, and I didn’t want to do that. So I just decided to write all new material, and I made a decision to try to do something with Virgil because I’m a big fan of his. Like I said, he plays really amazingly on it, and I think it’s a good combo.
Since we’re talking about great drummers, the most recent Allan Holdsworth release is the live record “Blues for Tony.” What made you want to revisit the music that you played with Tony Williams?
It wasn’t so much that, as I simply just got back together with Alan Pasqua. We hadn’t performed together since those days when we were in Tony’s group. We just thought that would be a great place to start. Even though Alan has played keyboards on some of my records as a guest soloist, we never did any live playing since then. “Blues for Tony” was originally a bootleg, and it wasn’t something that we really planned to do. But somebody else had already made a bootleg copy, and most of that was from one concert in Germany. We just decided to release the same record on our own, kind of like what Frank Zappa did with his “Beat the Boots” series of records.
How did you originally become a member of “The New Tony Williams’ Lifetime?”
I was playing at Ronny Scott’s club one day with a friend of mine named Pat Spive, who is no longer with us. Chuck Mangione and his band were also playing there at the time. Chuck Mangione got sick while he was in London, and my friend Pat was sitting in for him while he recovered. Pat mentioned me to the guys in the band, and they asked me if I wanted to sit in with them. It seems like this is a strange way for things to happen, but this is exactly what happened. When the band went home to the States, Tony Williams ran into the bass player Alphonso Johnson. Tony said that he was going to put a new band together, and he was looking for a guitar player. Alphonso just said: “There’s this English guy I just played with, and you ought to give him a try.” And that’s what happened.
What are some of your memories of the time you spent with that band?
Well, I loved it. Obviously, we had some hard times with the money. That’s just the way it was, and that’s kind of the way it still is. If you want to play music that’s not mainstream, you’ve got to expect that not so many people are going to want to hear it. There are lots of things people can do, but once you choose to take that path, you have to be prepared to do it because you love it as opposed to doing it because you’re going to make a ton of money, because you’re not. The thing is, we struggled in that band financially, but musically it was great for me. To be on the same stage with those guys, especially Tony, was something really special. It was a great honor for me. And Alan Pasqua as well. That guy was a very inspiring player, and he still is to this day. Tony Newton as well. We all brought something different to that band,
I’d like to go back even further into your past. What made you want to play guitar in the first place?
I didn’t want to play the guitar. I wanted a saxophone or a violin, but they weren’t easy to come by. My parents didn’t have much money, but my father bought a guitar from my uncle and he gave that to me. My father was a great piano player and he knew, even from when I was really tiny, that I was really interested in music.
The guitar just sat in a chair for a long time, and eventually I started picking it up and noodling around with it. One day it seemed like my dad thought I was making a little bit of progress, and I was getting more interested in it. Then he went out and bought a bunch of guitar books, and started trying to help me with the guitar. So the fact that I play guitar is actually a giant accident.
What guitar players did you listen to when you were first learning how to play?
From that time period, it was mostly the records that my dad had. So originally it was Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. And then it was Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and Jimmy Raney. All those really great guys. However, I wasn’t really focused on listening to the guitar. I listened to a lot of music. My dad had a lot of classical music, which was very inspiring to me. There was Debussy, Ravel, Béla Bartók, Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland. I was influenced by a lot of other things besides jazz.
The thing I liked about jazz was that I had a fascination with improvising. I didn’t want to stick to any one style of jazz. I just liked being presented with a set of chord changes, and then trying to think of putting something interesting on top of it. I didn’t really focus a lot on the guitar. I listened to a lot of horn players, like Charlie Parker of course, and when I discovered John Coltrane, that was it. That guy changed my whole life. I couldn’t hear any lineage in his playing. Somehow, he seemed to be connected to the instrument in a way that I had never heard before. So I became really fascinated with John Coltrane, and I bought just about every record I could get my hands on.
You’ve mentioned your jazz and classical influences. What about your rock influences? When did you get the idea to incorporate rock influences into your music?
That came just by the fact that I couldn’t play anything else. When you first start out, you don’t just wake up one day playing like Joe Pass. I started out with what I could actually play. I started with pop music, and then I started playing in local blues bands because it was easier. And then I got interested in more different kinds of music as I progressed.
Since I didn’t really like the guitar because of its “percussive” sound, I got very excited when people like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton started using heavier distortion. I saw that I could get more sustain out of the guitar now.
How much did you practice when you were first learning how to play guitar?
I practiced every day, pretty much all the time. I didn’t have a particular regime. I didn’t have anyone rapping my knuckles and saying that I had to start at six o’clock and play for four hours. I just picked it up when I wanted, and I put it down when I wanted. Sometimes it would be a half an hour, and sometimes it would be a whole day. And it’s still like that today.
However, sometimes I get to the point where I don’t want to even touch the guitar, and I’ll go for months without playing. And actually I find that really helpful for my playing. It allows me to make connections in my head, rather than on the guitar. It’s like John Scofield once said about that Yellow Pages ad that went: “Let your fingers do the walking.” He used to always say: “Never ever let your fingers do the walking!” Sometimes when you practice a lot, you start doing things that you’ve already done before. It’s inescapable in one way, but on the other hand, sometimes when I take some time off, some of those connections get broken. Then when I get back to the guitar again, except for the first two or three hours when I feel a little stiff, I start making new connections. So I think that it’s okay to take a break once in a while.
One of the many hallmarks of your sound is your legato phrasing. Specifically, you don’t seem to use your right hand to pick a lot of notes. Instead, you seem to do a lot of hammering and pulling off. What made you want to pursue this style of playing?
When I started doing that, it wasn’t really considered a style. I was simply trying to make the guitar sound less percussive. In actual fact, I use my pick a lot more than people think, and I don’t really use pull-offs. It’s mostly all hammer-ons. It’s like a combination of hammering on and picking. I practice really hard to make the notes that I pick sound softer than the notes that I hammer on. I try to make it sound very linear, so it’s hard to tell which is which.
You spoke earlier about the people that influenced you. Now, I want to ask you about the people that you have influenced. In addition to all the jazz and fusion players that were influenced by you, there’s a lot of what you could call “shredders” that were also influenced by you. I’m talking about guys like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and John Petrucci, just to name a few. Are you comfortable being at least indirectly associated with that style of music?
Well of course. All of those guys are amazing. It’s just like anything else. You try really hard to do something, and then someone else comes along and kicks your groin. It’s just the nature of music. I think it’s great. I love all those guys. The music is one thing, and the playing is another.
A couple of years ago, I went to see Yngwie in concert. One of my friends is a huge fan, as am I. Sometimes I’m not overly fond of that music, but at the same time his playing was undeniably great. His talent is undeniable. You don’t even have to like it to know that it’s good. That guy can really play the guitar. I don’t have a problem with styles of music at all.
I’m a huge John Scofield fan also. He’s like the other end of the spectrum with his music. It’s all about the harmony, which is almost more important. The chops are one thing, but playing really cool notes is another game entirely.
Have you heard Yngwie’s cover version of “In the Dead of Night?”
You know what? I hate to say it, but I haven’t. I’m sure it’s amazing, but I think I’m afraid to listen to it (laughs). It’s one of those things. Somebody comes along at a different time, and they interpret it a different way and they add their own stuff to it. I’m sure it’s great.
Is it true that Eddie Van Halen helped get you signed to a major record label for the “Road Games” album?
Yeah, he did. Absolutely, it was Eddie. The album was a total disaster, the whole process of recording and dealing with the producer. The whole thing was a nightmare. That was no fault of Eddie’s. He was just trying to help, and he’s a sweet guy and a tremendous guitar player as well. He got us signed to Warner Bros. It was a failed attempt, because they didn’t realize that I can be a bit stubborn. I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do, and that was the end of that.
You played in the band “Bruford” shortly before venturing out on your own. Was that about the time when you decided to stop playing in other people’s bands and start concentrating on your own stuff?
Yeah, it was while I was with Bill. I enjoyed working with Bill in his band, and I even enjoyed playing in U.K. before that. It wasn’t so much fun on the road with U.K. because even though I really liked all the guys, I couldn’t find my own space in it. And when Bill left U.K. to do his own thing, he asked me if I wanted to go along with him. I said yes because Bill was more open to things being looser, and not playing the exact same solos every night. Of course that would be impossible for me anyway, because I wouldn’t even know what I did the night before. So playing in Bruford gave me much more freedom.
About that time, I started playing with drummer Gary Husband on the side. At this time, I had already written a bunch of new music for myself. So I thought it was a golden opportunity to form my own group with Gary and Paul Carmicheal. But unfortunately it was a disaster from a financial point of view. We called the band “IOU” because more often than not, it would cost us more money to do the gig than what we normally got paid for doing it. That’s what happens when you want to play “esoteric bullshit,” which is what some people call what we do.
Well, you have had a very long career, and many of the other pioneers of jazz/rock fusion are also still going strong today. What do you think it is about fusion that makes it so enduring?
In a way, I think what I play is fusion music, but the word “fusion” doesn’t work at all for my music. Whenever someone asks me if I like fusion, I say no. I just associate it with really fast Muzak, like what you would hear in an elevator, and I hate that stuff. The name itself is a good name, but it was just misused.
I don’t have a problem with the word “fusion,” but I made a connection a long time ago. When somebody mentions fusion, I hear a certain thing that I just don’t like. It’s not a global statement. There are so many tremendous musicians that can be classified as fusion.
When I used the word “fusion,” I was thinking about people like Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, and Al DiMeola.
Those guys are all great, but I don’t consider that fusion. That is, I don’t associate them with the fusion that I don’t like. I love all those guys, they’re all tremendously talented, and if you have that much talent, people are going to want to listen to your music forever.