Interview with Allan Holdsworth (Chitarre 1996)

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Interview with Allan Holdsworth


November 1996

By Mauro Salvatori

For those who have had the opportunity to follow the more than twenty-year career of Allan Holdsworth, this latest record will represent a bolt from the blue: None Too Soon opens a new chapter for the artistic evolution of this great guitarist. Finally after years spent looking for a maturity as a composer, this time Allan gives us an album totally focused on jazz standards.

We have already reviewed the album in Chitarre in the October issue (and I refer you to this for a detailed description), but it is worth remembering that, alongside Gordon Beck, Kirk Covington and Gary Willis, Allan has experimented with compositions of authors such as Coltrane, Reinhardt, Joe Henderson and even Lennon-McCartney ... So much hard be bop and many fusion atmospheres with futuristic sounds: Allan touches the pinnacle of technicality in "Countdown", "Norwegian Wood" and "Isotope". For a classy album it was at the very least necessary to exchange a chat with him: the phone rings in Los Angeles ...

Q: Allan, why the choice to focus the content of your new work on jazz standards: it seems a rather unusual decision, especially when compared to your previous music publications ...

AH: Well I have to admit that the idea started from Gordon Beck, we have been friends for so long now and talking among ourselves the topic of how often many people really do not manage to understand the musical contents of my proposals [proposte] came out: it is someone who considers my repertoire too difficult, unusual, very personal; so Gordon suggested to me "... maybe if you record an album with known songs, even more familiar for a certain type of audience, listeners could probably follow your directions more easily, both from a guitarist's point of view and from that strictly musical "; and in fact most of my music aims to be as original as possible, which may create some difficulties for a first listen, but there is also to say that all my compositions are based on harmonic progressions which then become anyway for all the other musicians who are playing with me a vehicle on which they can then improvise, and therefore the term jazz can be used in every way, even if obviously the technical concepts with which the other instrumentalists move within my tracks can’t be properly defined as straight ahead jazz (in the most traditional sense of the phrase), especially the work of drummers, or even the sounds that we often choose when recording and so on. In short, Gordon insisted, "... perhaps with a the album of that type the public would understand more your intentions "and so I decided, and I must say that I am very happy with how the work succeeded in the end! [Machine back translated]

Q: I heard that you had some difficulty distributing the disc ...

AH: Yes, originally I had signed a contract with Polydor for a distribution in the States and in Japan, but then some of the big bosses decided that they didn't like the album and so I had to start all over again - in fact the work itself was recorded more than a year ago: fortunately for some time now there has been an excellent working relationship with Jean Marie Salhani, of French Cream Records, who already owns my previous catalog of records, and so we were still able to publish the CD on the European market. [Machine back translated]

Q: Let's talk about some songs on the record: why did you choose the Beatles and their "Norwegian Wood"?

AH: This was also an idea suggested by Gordon Beck: many years ago he had had the opportunity to record that song on his solo record and so we wanted to take up this composition trying to reconnect in part to the arrangement recorded at the time (the disc in question is Experiments with Pops, and I refer you to the box contained in the article). [Machine back translated]

Q: I think the masterpiece of the album is the "Nuages" of the great Reinhardt ...

AH: Thank you, I must admit that I have always been a fan of Django and this album was an opportunity to pay tribute to him, also I have always been a passionate fan of John Coltrane - not by chance we have also included his "Countdown "; the same goes for Joe Henderson and "Isotope". They are all songs that are part of the jazz world, but that I don't really consider the standards, I must say that probably the only song that you could define as such is "How Deep Is The Ocean" by Irving Berlin. [Machine back translated]

Q: To what extent do you think your phrasing has improved, or in any case changed, in this specific case, that is to say within harmonic structures that are altogether quite different from those on which your tracks generally rest?

AH: Well, I don't think I have played differently than usual, let's say that this time I tried to respect and inspire myself to a certain type of very specific idiom, even if - mind you - something I didn't want to do anyway, the last thing I would like to do [underlining energetically with the tone of the voice] is to play with that typical intention at the "Big-JazzFat-Guitar" which generally they all use a little when they are dealing with certain musical situations [and here I believe that Allan was referring to the typical warm, round sound, quite common for various traditional jazz guitarists]. I have absolutely no interest in this kind of thing, at the same time I don't want to say that I don't like this or that guitarist, only if I played with that kind of sound or phrasing it wouldn't be more than me, in any kind of musical context I am expressing myself, I always want the listener to find myself and my way of playing in the sense closest to the word: one of the reasons I am satisfied with this work is the fact that in the end, at least for me, I feel that is I am who is playing and I have not done anything to change my musical personality - for example I used the same guitar that I always play, and in this sense it was a real goal to be able to use distorted sounds, having inserted them and made to work within a certain environment, something I've worked for so long; in fact in general the distorted guitar is always associated with rock music. Another important element is constituted from having been able to exploit that particular kind of sustain: I repeat myself that perhaps that kind of music may push you in one direction rather than another, but the basic spirit is always that; all in all, as I do in my compositions, I have done nothing but improvise on the chords and that's it. [Machine back translated]

Q: And in this regard, how did you find yourself having to record with a new rhythm section?

AH: I would say very well. The reason we decided to play with Gary Willis and Kirk Covington was very simple: some time ago Gordon and I worked together with them on a compilation to rearrange Beatles songs, and we recorded "Michelle" [the compilation in question is entitled Come Together, Guitar Tribute To The Beatles, and is produced by Mike Manieri, for the NYC Records label, distributed by VMG, catalog number NYC 6004 2]; everything worked beautifully, so when we started talking about the project with Gordon, their names immediately came up. Obviously we wanted Gary and Kirk to play their own way, without giving them instructions or suggestions, and their contribution was very valuable. [Machine back translated]

Q: Since we talk about your other recordings outside of your album, you recently recorded with the Johansson brothers: how would you define this collaboration?

AH: Well, it's a completely different musical dimension, certainly more rock; it is a very good album in my opinion, and even in this case it is still something different than what I would play if it were my music: I would say that if you listen to it you realize that the person who is playing is always the same - I like to think of One To Soon at one extreme, the collaboration with the Johansson brothers to another, and then in the middle my music ... I repeat, it is important to understand that basically, however you want to listen to it, it's always the same person who plays. [Machine back translated]

Q: Allan, to return to your last work for a moment, have you ever studied or played jazz standards during your career? I remember some of your London concerts in the early seventies alongside some beautiful names in the British jazz scene of that period ...

AH: Oh certainly, although I have to say that I grew up listening more than playing the bebop. However at the beginning, when I moved to London, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some jazz musicians, for example Pat Smythe (pianist), and therefore also the opportunity to explore certain musical structures. However I must confess that I have always tried to interpret them in a personal way, trying to reach my way of playing, exactly as I tried to do in the case of None Too Soon. Obviously today I think I play better than at the time - the more time passes, the more we hope to improve. [Machine back translated]

Q: A little curiosity for our readers: a few years ago I remember you were working on a reworking of your "Tokyo Dream", was it ever released on disk?

AH: Yes, but only for the Japanese market, although an import can also be found here in America, I don't know in Europe; it seems to me that the title of the album is Wardenrclyffe Tower Plus Three because there were some re-recorded songs on which I had returned to work, partly different from the original recorded at the time. [Machine back translated]

Q: What about the instrumentation, what did you use on None Too Soon?

AH: Regarding the amplification I recorded the clean sounds live on the bench passing through a DI, while for the distorted ones I alternated a Mesa Boogie Rectifier with a Rectifier cabinet with two cones for 12" and a Sovtek, which I appreciated a lot in the situations a little less distorted, always full of sustain but not as aggressive, as in "Nuages." As a guitar I used a Steinberger and a Carvin prototype, a company I am collaborating with at this time. [Machine back translated]

Q: Another little curiosity: what music does Allan Holdsworth listen to when he's not busy creating some other masterpiece?

AH: Oh boy (laughing amused), the truth is that I am always so busy working, recording, composing and so on, and time seems always short, however in the last few weeks I have returned to listen to composers like Debussy, Ravel and Shostacovich. [Machine back translated]

Q: One of your latest publications, perhaps the most unexpected but also the most welcome, was that of your educational video for REH, do you have any new projects in this regard?

AH: I don't know, for the moment I don't think so. It is very difficult to try to publish a video without finding yourself having to do what others are already doing, things like "do this, put your hand like that, use this fingering" and so on; this was exactly what I tried to avoid, while instead the purpose of that video was to try new ways to be able to stimulate people to look for other ideas, other directions, to open new creative horizons, and above all to be able to give them new information to be able to then use in their own way. Instead a new project to which I have just started working, but I foresee that it will take at least a couple of years before finishing it, it is a book in which I propose to explain in every single detail how I reason from the harmonic point of view. [Machine back translated]

Q: I guess it will be a pretty tough job to do ...

AH: Especially long, I would say, but it will contain a bit of all the formulas that I generally use to get scales and progressions. [Machine back translated]

I thought I saw some of your educational columns on some newspapers.

AH: Oh no, absolutely, I would never write for a newspaper, the truth is that they have copied some cuts from an interview and then have them passed in the form of an address book[?], and in fact I'm very angry about it. Initially when they called me to propose the idea I thanked them for thinking, but I pointed out to them that I had no time, and instead they did the same ... (and here followed a rather colorful expression that Allan gave with a decidedly disgusted tone). [Machine back translated]

To return to None Too Soon for a moment, there are great guitar interventions but also a brilliant work by SynthAxe, especially in the harmonizations: I thought you had abandoned this instrument.

AH: Yes, in fact now I use the SynthAxe only occasionally, also because I don't have one anymore, but I still love being able to play it in the studio; in this particular case it seemed appropriate to be able to insert it to get a contrast with the parts of the piano and thus to give a more sense of space compared to the harmonies on the chords, and in this regard it seems to me very successful the song in which Gary Willis performs his solo, "Very Early", and behind me I can create that very wide atmosphere, unfortunately I stopped playing live with SynthAxe also because they don't build them anymore and therefore maintenance is quite complicated. [Machine back translated]

Q: From one speech to another: do you know that Yngwie Malmsteen has recently recorded a version of "In the Dead Of Night"?

AH: Oh yes, I met him some time ago and he said he had something like that in mind. [Machine back translated]

Q: Do you like it?

AH: Certainly, however, I have not yet had the chance to hear it. [Machine back translated]

Q: A tip for Italian Chitarre readers, from a technical point of view but perhaps also - let's say - philosophical?

AH: First of all, I love Italy a lot and also all the people who live there, I think it has that particular kind of humanity and warmth that is very difficult to find in other countries. From what I've heard there is no need for advice because it seems to me that there is a lot of talent around there, maybe I could suggest that you are always persistent, never give up, "keep going man, don't give it up". Finally, I would like to quote a phrase that I always keep in mind and which I believe helps in some way: "Hope for the best but always be ready to face the worst!" [bursting out laughing amused]. [Machine back translated]

Q: And your consideration on the musical level, for those who start today?

AH: Well, I think the most important thing is to find the right way to fully express yourself, I was influenced by several musicians initially, I think it's nice to be influenced anyway, but with the passage of time I find nothing to say wonderful to be able to identify the way to achieve something unique! [Machine back translated]

Q: Upcoming projects?

AH: Well, I already have the material written for a new album and I hope to enter the studio as soon as possible, so that I can release the album at the beginning of the new year; then I am about to form a new group with which I want to play something totally new, a cross between what I proposed before and this new combination with certain more jazzy components and influences: I already have musicians in mind but for now I prefer to keep it secret. Above all, I hope to be back on the road in Italy, there are already projects and contacts, and I confess that I miss the Italian public, the people; and then don't forget that I am also a fan of ravioli, tortellini and, why not, even good wine! Yes, I really think we will meet again very soon! [Machine back translated]

Mauro Salvatori

The Gordon Beck Quartet: EXPERIMENTS WITH POPS

Major Minor Records Limited MMLP21

An album to say the least rare and at the same time unmissable; if you ever happen to be in the middle of a European holiday to wander around the London markets of Camden Town or Portobello, or in the Parisian markets not far from Les Halles where it is still easy to follow the taste of the used disc, try to search, it would be worth worthwhile: this album embodies a flash of history to say the least unrepeatable! When in 1968 Gordon Beck decided to try his experiments with some historical pieces of pop music, the world was slowly starting on the threshold of the 70s and the age of the beat with its dreams and splendor became increasingly distant; educated and ingenious pianist, endowed with very personal style and phrasing, from a little later Gordon Beck will become a historical figure in the British jazz environment, and it is no coincidence that in his courageous LP (if we consider the time of publication) some likewise high-sounding characters and today somehow become legendary: on the back cover photos a beardless John McLaughlin appears on the guitar while on bass Jeff Clynne and Tony Oxley on drums start the partnership that shortly will reconfirm them as one of the sections most envied English rhythms and requests in the area of ​​international jazz! Eight tracks contained, and all equally revisited in pure hard be bop style with a taste and taste definitely anticipating all that would have happened a little later: the "Norwegian Wood" by Lennon-McCartney is completely distorted by the swinging arrangement of the four, with a performance at McLaughlin's twelve strings acoustic, as happens for "Michelle" or the "Sunny" by Bobby Hebb; tracks to say the least unusual for those accustomed to traditional jazz structures are reviewed: "These Boots Are Made For Walking", written by Lee Hazelwood for Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of The Voice, or "I Can See For Miles". by the Who or the "Monday Monday" composed by Philips for its Mamas & Papas, and finally the masterpiece of the album, the "Good Vibrations" with which the Beach Boys will shake up the music scene of the late sixties, anticipating with sound experiments, the pressing of new technologies that soon will wipe out the era of beat groups, now too anchored to the mellifluous sound of the various stringed guitars and too often used as the background to the various choirs praising the always thrilling praise of beatlesian memory yeh yeh : here a Spanish guitar underlines the melody of the song with great emphasis, to then start the variations of the other components in a suggestive collective crescendo! Go rdon Beck & Co. pioneeringly foreshadows the epoch of jazzrock, fusion, and each song, while moving within the stylistic features of a robust hard be bop, becomes, beyond the original structure, an ideal pretext for improvisations where the taste and technical preparation blend admirably, reaching decidedly fascinating levels of expressiveness. McLaughlin, in those days grappling with semi-acoustic guitars and therefore very clean sounds, sometimes warm, shows off a nervous phrasing, somehow anticipating his next post-avisine proposals; Gordon Beck plays and in his own way recomposes the tracks, offering a harmonious flair without equal, Jeff Clyne on bass and Tony Oxley do the rest guaranteeing a solid and honest background, sometimes trespassing with some soaring in the slightly adventurous territories of free jazz! Now out of print (who knows if some far-sighted publisher will have the courage to reprint it on CD?

The record is perhaps impossible to find but it is well worth looking for! The undersigned has been lucky: he wishes you the same!


Anders & Jens Johansson and Allan Holdsworth HEAVY MACHINERY

Heptagon Records AB

ANDERS JOHANSSON A musical project to say the least JENS JOHANSSON unusual and unpublished for the Swedish and brothers duo, who are now ALLAN HOLDSWORTH recognized as one of the flagship wings of the Nordic music scene. Anders Johansson started playing the piano, but then at the age of fourteen he dived to study the drums and since then he has come a long way: most people will probably remember him alongside Malmsteen in his Rising Force for the next five multiplatinate albums , but Anders later collaborated also with John McLaughlin's bassist, Jonas Hellborg, and then joined John Sykes' band, a character who saw it at the time with bands like Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake. Then Anders also found the time to play with the Chinese mega-star vocalist Wei Wei: in short, a respectable curriculum, as is his rocky and precise drumming, at times cold and ruthless like the climate of his land of origin. Jens Johansson is a classical and avant-garde keyboardist at the same time, and mentions among his influences the baroque music and people like Stockhausen and Ligeti; in addition to experiences with Malmsteen, he has played with bands like The Silver Mountain and Dio: both brothers have now released several solo LPs and their Heptagon label is among the most active in the Scandinavian landscape. Not surprisingly, for their musical directions today the two turned to this music project for their own musical project like Holdsworth: there is really a bit of everything in this album, but a great determination predominates, perhaps a rage certainly unexpected, at times unpublished, which leads the two brothers to build harmonious and resonant carpets on which Allan can vent performances at the limits of the harmonic adventure: quite minor chord progressions, glacial keyboard sounds, and rhythmic performances often based on broken times or dragging times where it is not difficult to insert the experimental lines, in part atonal, of a guitar that never seems satisfied enough with the improvisations achieved! Each title could seem the most suitable to describe the content of the album: it goes from the initial "Joint Ventures", very adherent to the stylistic elements of the early 1970s jazz rock, in which Allan retraces certain solo lines that reconfirm him the leader of a well-established technical-musical itinerary, to then run into the "Mission Possible" with a vaguely bluish gait in which Jens Johansson enjoys keyboard citations perhaps dear to the first Brian Auger, but which then allow excursions with the lever for a decidedly Holdsworth at ease, while the song expands infinitely in an increasingly engaging way, "Good Morning, Mr Coffee", nervous, urgent, with its broken and frantic rhythm, increases the dose of impatience for the listener since then the song widens for a game of keyboards that leads to harmonies on 4/4 where Allan convulsively inserts a series of phrasings all too daring and unconventional ible: perhaps "Sioux Of The Day" winks at certain moods that are a bit moody, from the harmonic point of view, dear to the early UK and with keyboard references that Eddie Jobson would not mind, but then in "On The Fritz" the atmosphere returns to a fusion played on counter-timings and high-level instrumental joints: for those who have known Holdsworth's performances in the first solo albums by Bill Bruford many intuitions, based on the work of rhythm, will then constitute a pleasant confirmation, as in "Never Mind Out Weather" or in "Beef Cherokee". For those who want to listen to a wild Holdsworth that is never predictable or predictable, here is the right opportunity: thanks to two well-trained and intrepid Swedish musicians, the Johansson brothers, a surname to remember! (ms)