Allan Holdsworth Jam (Jazziz 1994)

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Allan Holdsworth Jam

by Josef Woodard

Jazziz August-September 1994


On the fretboard according to Allan Holdsworth, fingers fly in all directions, making knuckle-busting leaps and maneuvering super-speedy and harmonically intricate lines with apparent ease. But what makes this guitar hero a unique musical figure is not mere pyrotechnics, but an elegance of assembly and yearning emotional quality. Other guitar wizards flail and stomp. Holdsworth, when he improvises, coaxes poetry-a virtuosic brand.

You can hear it on the recently reissued Tony Williams Lifetime (Columbia) from the mid-'70s, featuring a young and then freshly off-the-boat Brit tearing up the guitar in a fresh, new way. Flash-forward two decades, and you can hear it on Holdsworth's new album, Hard Hat Area (Restless), his eighth as a leader.

On an unseasonably rainy day in Southern California, Holdsworth sits down to talk in his garage/studio outside the geodesic dome house where he lives with his family in the town of Vista, outside of San Diego. Though he inspires awe in his admirers, Holdsworth is a down-to-earth chap, looking like Paul McCartney's younger, antsier brother-fond of beer and bicycling, as well as making music to make guitarists weep.

Holdsworth’s all-American garage is split up into three rooms which tell the story of his divided interests. One room houses a mixing board, sound gear, and his Synthaxe. In the middle room are various and sundry amplifiers, homemade gadgetry, and a peculiar, boxless speaker housing which he built and uses to record. The backroom is for storage and tools.

"I'm always doing two or three different jobs at once," Holdsworth shrugs. "I'll be testing this and then working on a box in there and then working on a new tune in between. I just don't seem to be able to go for one thing and stay there.

"It seems like the change inspires me. I'll go from a computer thing to playing a bit and then bang on a box. That makes sense in a way. If you stayed in one place doing one thing for too long, you'd go insane.

"Of course, nothing ever gets finished," he smirks.

Holdsworth's recorded output belies this self-deprecating comment. Though Hard Hat Area has the title of a work in progress, its sound, like a typical Holdsworth project, is carefully finished. The album is a cohesive package that highlights the band as well as the man up front, and it features drummer Gary Husband (a longtime Holdsworth compadre), keyboardist Steve Hunt, and the dexterous Icelandic bassist Skuli Sverrison.

The germ of an idea for the title track of Hard Hat Area, a sequencer-driven, mechanistic construct, came during a Japanese tour. Holdsworth admired the work ethic of a huge construction crew erecting a skyscraper. "That stuck in my memory, seeing all these guys, quite organized and doing this work," he says, "In my mind, I could see a Super Mario version of the process. What I wanted to do was write a cartoon tune.

"Quite often, I'll do that with my music. I’ll have a scene, as if I'm watching a movie. And I could see this structure going up, with clouds of dust and all. Skuli came up after a good night and said, "I think we should have handed out crash helmets to the audience.” I started thinking, 'Oh, "hard hat area," that's not too bad a name," he laughs.

The secret of Holdsworth's sound is a careful balance of crash helmet brand blowing and cerebral undercurrents. The son of a piano player, Holdsworth didn't plunge into guitar seriously until his twenties, but he was a quick study.

Starting in the '70s, Holdsworth's education was put to use by jazz and prog rock acts such as Tony Williams, Gong, UK, Bruford, and Jean Luc Ponty. Completists will want to dig up his domestic debut on CTI, Velvet Darkness, now out of print and hard to find, but well worth the effort. While Holdsworth virtually disowns the album and shudders to recall the Creed Taylor-produced session, the album has a sporting, rough-edged luster unlike any later recording-as well as rare evidence of Holdsworth on acoustic guitar and violin.

Rough edges aren't his wont. Holdsworth's reputation is that of a ferocious player and improviser, but with an exacting and self-critical bent. Would he describe himself as a perfectionist?

"Well, I wouldn't really describe myself that way, but maybe I am. I don't know. Once I start on something, I'll work on it really hard, working ridiculous hours here trying to finish.

"But then there are other times when I just don't feel motivated. I just lose interest and want to go out on my bike. Quite often, during those periods I'm thinking, "I'm supposed to be a musician. I should be practicing."

By virtue of his unorthodox voicings and finger-twisting phrases and unusually fluid textures, Holdsworth has a natural tendency to extend the existing standards of guitar playing. An experimentalist by nature, he suggests discontent with the very tradition of his instrument.

"I am discontent with what I can do with it," he says, "and I have always felt frustrated. I ended up playing the wrong instrument. But, at the same time, it would be too difficult for me to scrap it and start on a new instrument, even if I wanted to." His ambivalence with his instrument of choice is partly why he has taken to the Synthaxe, an elaborate guitar synthesizer of which he has become the most prominent user.

"It opened up a whole new area, he says, “I can use the breath controller, and I wanted to play a horn. I was able to make the sound loud and soft, all the things I wanted to do with the guitar but couldn't-the guitar being percussive by nature.


"Sure, you can change a note, but there's only so much you can do, compared to a horn where you can make a note disappear completely and then bring it up again, make it loud or soft, all after it's started. It's really important to me, to shape the sound.


He is quick to defend his use of his hybrid guitar, at a time when its use has been on the wane. To some ears, the smooth digital sheen of guitar synths-as used by Holdsworth, Pat Metheny, and John McLaughlin, to name a few-contradicts the inherent physicality of the instrument.

But to Holdsworth technology is not a dirty word "Everything is a product of technology-even acoustic piano. They had to learn how to make a string out of steel. Even with the bamboo flute, you have to know where to put the holes. You can go back as far as you want. It's a product of science, of trial and error.

"That's what I see with a complicated instrument like the Synthaxe. It's still a tool. Music, the sound that it makes, is what's important. What makes it is completely irrelevant.

"I've found that a lot of guitar players only listen to guitar. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's like being focused on a particular machine. It's like being interested in a certain kind of wrench. I’ve tried to concern myself with the end result, and how it got to be like that is not important. That's why most of my favorite musicians play instruments other than the guitar."

At the same time, Holdsworth expresses frustration over a common bias in much of the jazz scene against the very sound of distorted electric guitar. "They hear the sound and then they don't care what you play, whether it's basic or incredibly deep. They don't care, they hear the sound, and it's rock, or "rock-inspired”.

“And in a way, it is rock-inspired. I grew up in an era when that kind of guitar sound just started. Because I didn't get to play the instrument I wanted, it was one of the ways I could get the guitar to have a horn-like quality. That's why I stayed with it. I've tried to disguise it as much as I can, and make it sound as nice as it is for what is-for the fact that it's some huge thing screaming its head off."

Holdsworth sees his music as deriving from a combination of jazz, rock, and classical influences. He cites the harmonic influence of Debussy, Ravel, and Copland, as well as John Coltrane, Charlie Christian, and other role models. But, while his place in the fusion guitar pantheon is secure, he cringes at being associated with the f-word. There is something patently different about Holdsworth's bittersweet music, as compared to the typically upbeat, chops shop fusion.

"Some of it might be a little sad or melancholy. Maybe some of that comes from where I grew up, because it’s a pretty bleak part of the world-in Yorkshire. It was a huge textile town, a booming town in the '40s. You get that feeling just from the way it looks-everything's gray, and the buildings are all black, and, like a friend of mine said, the sky's so low. "I think music is geographically influenced. Even though I live here now," he gestures out the rain-spattered window to a suburban scene looking unusually UK-like, "the music is from somewhere else."