And so now “jazz” guitar legend Allan Holdsworth has passed. I got my first exposure to his work via Bill Bruford’s first two solo records, and then the UK collaboration with Bruford, John Wetton, and Eddie Jobson. Man, what a distinctive style: I’m not sure there is anyone more distinctive, anywhere–and that even includes Robert Fripp, which for me at least is saying something!
Holdsworth is the guy, after all, that Frank Zappa called “the most interesting guy on guitar on the planet”.
After being blown away (as in: “Holy shit, who is this?” about ten seconds after hearing him start to play) by Bruford and UK, I of course had to hear what else there was. The first thing I found was Velvet Darkness, which I thought was fabulous, not realizing that he had always hated it (for very understandable reasons), and at some point I wound up with a couple other, later records, including Atavachron. What I remember concluding, at the time, was that he was going exclusively in the direction of the SynthAxe, which just didn’t resonate with me musically. And so he kinda fell off my radar for a while, until I discovered his 1975 and 1976 records with the Tony Williams Lifetime. (What’s funny is that it was probably that work which drew Bruford to Holdsworth in the first place.)
Anyway, as I go back and listen to his stuff again, now with a little better understanding of what it means to be a player, Holdsworth’s wizardry jumps out at me even more. The late William Grigg (himself no slouch as a guitarist) used to joke that Holdsworth was so harmonically advanced that it constituted prima facie evidence that he was in fact not human, but rather some form of alien being, sent here to show us what was possible. (There are times, watching and listening to him play, when I’d not want to be the one to try and argue otherwise!)
The story goes that Holdsworth never wanted to be a guitar player, but rather a sax player (I’ve heard it claimed that when John Coltrane died, Holdsworth cried for three days), and so he developed a guitar style that was specifically intended to phrase and sound like a horn. Well, I can certainly hear “sheets of sound” in his phrasing, and the blunted-attack, incredibly smooth legato sound he got seems like a marvelously imaginative way of having a horn player’s mind in a guitar player’s body. Between the sound and the playing style, nobody else sounds even distantly like him.
He was also reputed to be incredibly critical of his own playing, even to the point of apologizing to an audience for it.
Man, that’s hard to believe.
(Direct link to video.)