He’s a Guitar Hero Among Guitarists by: George Varga
If the praise of his fellow guitarists could be converted into gold, England’s Allan Holdsworth would be a wealthy man. Make that a very wealthy man, since his gushing admirers include John McLaughlin, Eddie Van Halen, Jennifer Batten and nearly every jazz, rock and heavy-metal guitarist of note over the past 30 years.
“The dialect Allan has created on the guitar is incredible,” said guitar ace Peter Sprague, who counts Chick Corea and Sonny Rollins among his past collaborators. “A lot of people have been influenced by Allan, but I don’t think there was anyone playing like him before he came along.”
Those sentiments are seconded by guitar star and former Frank Zappa band member Mike Keneally, who performed in San Diego in 2007 on a double-bill with Holdsworth.
“Allan’s vocabulary and technique are so unique to him that it comes across as a completely new approach to the instrument and to music,” Keneally said.
“I’ve seen incredibly gifted and technically capable guitarists have the life drawn from their faces as they watch Allan’s hands and try to figure out what he does. It’s completely astonishing and absolutely beautiful.”
That it is, as befits a tireless innovator who combines endlessly inventive jazz improvisations with the sonic power of rock and a classically inspired approach to melody, harmony and rhythm that he attributes to his passion for such iconic composers as Bartok, Ravel and Debussy.
“Their music still kills me every time I hear it,” Holdsworth said. “I can’t listen to them too often, because I’d need too many tissues. I kind of lose it if I just think about the notes in (Debussy’s) ‘Claire de Lune.’ It’s the same with Ravel’s string quartets.”
And how does this veteran guitar great and notorious perfectionist regard being held in such high esteem by his fellow musicians?
“That’s a tough question — it doesn’t make me play any better,” said Holdsworth, 63, who resides in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
“Of course, it’s very flattering, but I can’t take it seriously. I mean, I take it seriously, inasmuch as I appreciate the people who have sort of liked something I did, which is great to know. At the same time, deep inside, I don’t know that I pay that much attention to it.”
Other guitarists with his singular vision, dazzling skill and track record of jaw-dropping live and recorded performances would be happy to rest on such formidable laurels.
But not Holdsworth, whose innovative, instantly distinctive guitar work has graced albums by rock legends (ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford), fusion-jazz greats (Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke) and a slew of acclaimed prog-rock bands (UK, Gong, Soft Machine).
“I just try to keep fishing into the guitar and see if I can find (new) things,” he said.
“As soon as I figured out I didn’t know anything about music, I was OK. It’s when I thought I could learn something that I was in trouble. It’s a never-ending story, but we all know that. The more you learn, the more you learn you don’t know.”
Holdsworth, who was born in Bradford, England, took up guitar as a boy because his family couldn’t afford to get him a saxophone. Jazz was his first love, and he soon began developing a sax-like sound and attack on electric guitar. It was the birth of his quicksilver legato style, unique voicings and the intricate chordal approach that has since amazed, and confounded, so many other guitarists.
Holdsworth has been in a league of his own since at least 1975, when his remarkably resourceful and fleet playing was featured on the landmark album “Believe It!” by the New Tony Williams’ Lifetime.
While he has made dozens of memorable recordings since then, both with other artists and under his own name, he has in recent years periodically revisited some of his work with former Miles Davis drum dynamo Williams, who died in 1997. The results can be heard on the recent concert DVD “Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua, Live at Yoshi’s,” which was recorded in 2007 and features revamped versions of three songs from “Believe It!” by a band that re-teams Holdsworth with former Lifetime keyboardist Alan Pasqua.
“Standing and playing next to Tony Williams was pretty amazing,” Holdsworth said. “One of the things I learned about being a band leader from Tony was that he would never, ever tell me what to play or do. He’d say: ‘There are no rules. This is the tune, play it how you want to.’ So, that’s what I do with my band members. I find guys I like and I let them interpret the music the way they hear it. I think that’s one reason they enjoy it.”
Holdsworth will soon embark on a 10-city West Coast tour with another former Zappa drummer, Terry Bozzio, in a band completed by two recent members of the art-rock band King Crimson, bassist and Chapman stick player Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto.
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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