In Memoriam: DownBeat’s Final Interview with Allan Holdsworth

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Allan Holdsworth is the subject of a 12-CD box set, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!, from Manifesto Records. (Photo: Courtesy Rhino Agency)

The legacy of legendary British guitarist, composer and bandleader Allan Holdsworth, who died April 15 at age 70, will live on through a 12-CD box set entitled The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever! on Manifesto Records. The box set includes all his re-mastered full-length solo albums from 1982 through 2003. The set’s extensive booklet boasts colorful photos and detailed accounts by Holdsworth on the making of each individual album.  

Manifesto has also released the double-CD set Eidolon, a 28-track compilation of Holdsworth’s handpicked personal favorites.

Holdsworth has been heralded by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin as possessing a pioneering style and vast harmonic vocabulary. In the ’70s, Holdsworth played with legendary drummer Tony Williams in the band Lifetime, and toured with British progressive jazz fusion group Soft Machine.

Holdsworth also worked with Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford on his first solo project, Feels Good To Me, and he contributed to recordings by—and live performances with—Jon Heisman’s Tempest, Jean-Luc Ponty, Gong and rock supergroup U.K., among others.
 
Below are excerpts from an interview DownBeat conducted with the guitarist in March 2017.

Is this your first collaboration with Manifesto Records?

This is my first collaboration with them as a record company, yes. I’ve worked before with Evan Cohen at Manifesto, and his dad was my publishing administrator for over 30 years. Well, Evan called me up one day and said, “Why don’t we remaster and repackage all your solo records and put them in one box? And, if you’d like, we’ll add a best-of compilation to go along with it.” And all the records are “in the family,” so everything would be [eventually commercially] available again. I think as a box set it won’t be available for that long, but then they all will be available as individual albums. [Manifesto] did a very good job of remastering everything, considering that many of the source tapes were very old.

The box set is called The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!

That wasn’t my idea! It’s not my personality to brag in any way or be pretentious. It’s just not my nature. All I was concerned about was the quality of the remasters. I listened to everything and, like I said, they did a great job. But by the time they got to the box set I didn’t realize that was gonna be the title. They took that from a Guitar Player magazine interview that I did. It was their words, not mine! I was distressed by it at first, but Evan at Manifesto Records had put so much time into it I didn’t feel it was appropriate of me to have them change the whole thing at the last minute because they had already begun the manufacturing of it. But they’re lovely people and I’ve been working with the family for many, many years.

Well, how would you like to be viewed as far as your influence on guitar?

That’s not for me to say; that’s the thing. I just try to play the guitar and get beat up by the thing every day. I’m [still] learning. I’ve been playing a long time and I still know nothing about it. But that’s the beauty! I realized that many, many years ago. You’re never gonna figure this thing out—it’s too big! Once I realized that, I was more comfortable. I can do what I do and try to improve and keep learning and getting better.

I’d like to go back to your early days when you were playing in bands like The New Tony Williams Lifetime, Soft Machine, Bill Bruford, Gong, U.K. and others. Can you talk about these formative years and how these different experiences led to your decision in the late ’70s to finally pursue a solo career?

I was very happy playing in all of those bands. I learned so much from everybody and I was privileged to work with them. Each one of those was a magical experience for me, particularly working with Tony Williams. I had the opportunity to move to New York and work with him. 

And wasn’t that around the time he was making a cross-over into electric rock and fusion music?

Yes, we did two albums, Believe It and Million Dollar Legs, on Columbia Records. We also did some touring mostly on the East Coast and Midwest. We also did some gigs in San Francisco until the bottom dropped out financially and we all ended splitting up. Tony went back to New York, bassist Tony Newton went back to L.A., keyboardist Alan Pasqua went back to New Jersey and I went back to London. And that was the last time I played with Tony.

You wanted to take up a horn rather than guitar when you were younger. You really didn’t think of yourself as a guitar player. Do you still feel that way and why?

Pretty much. I just think of myself as a musician. I always think of an instrument as exactly that, it’s just a tool for you to try and express yourself. My dad was a fine pianist and he had a lot of great records and beautiful music.

I grew up listening to Ravel, Debussy, Bartók and jazz like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart. It was incredibly inspiring! And I was given a guitar and I said “What the hell is this?!”

Like I said, my dad was a piano player, and I tried that, but I just didn’t have the feel for it. I wanted to play a horn or violin because you could change the loudness or softness of a sound. With a percussive instrument like piano or guitar I didn’t think I could get the feel I wanted on it. But I tried the guitar and found myself trying to make it not sound like a guitar [laughs].

But eventually I fell in love with the guitar for other reasons. I played the violin for a couple years too but I missed playing chords. So I went back to the guitar and used distortion to sustain notes and make it do things it wouldn’t normally do. So, here I am playing the guitar… or trying to!

How would you classify your music?

That’s an interesting question, because many of my compositions end up being vehicles for improvisation, and that makes it jazz. But at the same time, it’s not jazz in a normal sense. A lot of times, when you say jazz to somebody they think of something [that’s] bebop derivative, or something of that nature. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to keep that sustained-note thing going and pursued more of a rock thing. But I still tried to keep some sort of delicacy or fluidity to what I was doing. I just followed my heart and did what I wanted to do. It’s kind of selfish, really!

Who have you been playing with a lot in the studio and live?

Well, I’ve played a lot over the years with drummer Gary Husband and bassist Jimmy Johnson. More recently I’ve worked with drummer Virgil Donati. I’ve played a lot with bassist Jimmy Haslip, Alan Pasqua from the Tony Williams days, and drummer Chad Wackerman. Soon I’ll be doing some dates with long-time keyboardist Steve Hunt and a new bassist Evan Marien. We’re doing a few gigs to promote this new re-issue package.

You do a lot of research and development with the Carvin guitar and amplifier company,  don’t you?

I’ve worked with Carvin for decades, actually. They’re a wonderful company. They branched into two parts now as Carvin, which is the electronic stuff, and family name Kiesel, which is the guitar side now. And I have a wonderful relationship with them. Whenever I have a new idea or something I want to change on my instrument they’re always ready to help me out. 

What is your approach to the composition process? Do you have a particular regimen in how you do things?

I usually just work some stuff out on the guitar. And when I come up with something that sounds like an idea, I’ll embellish that. Usually I’ll start with the chords; sometimes I’ll have a melody first. It’s not predictable that way.

Once that’s in place, do you give your band a tape of something or chart it out?

In the old days, I would just play it for them. And a lot of my guys have big ears and would make their own charts. I don’t write a lot out for people because I have a strange system where I make notes for myself but nobody else would understand them [laughs]. I’m still kind of caught between the analog and digital worlds. But it’s so easy to make a midi file where I can print something out on computer and send it to my guys. That way they’ll have a file of the music that they can analyze for themselves and interpret it their way.

I like to give people a lot of freedom; I don’t tell people what to play. I learned that from Tony Williams. He would never tell me what or when to play. He had a very organic way of making music where everyone could express themselves. For example, I did some tracks with Gary Husband and Jimmy Johnson and I did the same pieces of music with drummer Joel Taylor and bassist Ernest Tibbs. Obviously, the tune and composition remains intact, but the interpretation was so different; it was like they were completely different pieces of music. It’s like magic to me! I wanna see people stretch out and have fun with the music.

Although a lot of your music is instrumental, you’ve had some great vocalists on your albums, like Paul Williams, Rowanne Mark and even Jack Bruce. What prompts you to add vocals on certain albums or tunes?

I like lyrics a lot. In the beginning I tried to write my own lyrics. Then, in the same way I like to give the guys freedom, I thought, “This guy is singing my lyrics, and is he thinking what I was thinking when I wrote them?” So, I stopped doing that. And I told Paul Williams, “The song is about this. Go write the lyrics yourself.” I think he and the other singers enjoyed that because they got to sing something that was meaningful to them. More often than not, it’s exactly what I had in mind.

Just like with instrumentalists, if you like what they play, you don’t want to tell them not to play that, but play this. The correct thing to do is to say, “I want you to be you!” DB

 


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