On a Sunday morning in mid-April I was looking at Facebook and was appalled to see a message from Allan Holdsworth's family that the great guitarist had passed away at the age of 70.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. He was one of my all-time favorites. If you don't know anything about him, read this excellent obituary from the NY Times.I don't want to write another huge essay about his entire career, so I'll restrict this to the early part of his career up until the late seventies.
I've been a devout fan of his since the early seventies, when I first picked up an album by the British rock band Tempest, curious about what drummer Jon Hiseman's new project was like. I put it on the turntable... and by the time it was over I was enthralled.
Here's the tune that really grabbed me – in his solos and fills, Holdsworth played without cliches – notes that no one else would have chosen, interval leaps that no one else could have conceived – all with an astonishing melodicism, speed and fluidity that was way beyond any guitar player I had ever heard:
He was also a violin player at this point in his career, and the intro on the last track of the Tempest album was a thing of beauty:
The first time I saw Allan play was a sheer accident — I went with some friends to see Renaissance, a mostly-forgotten British progressive rock band, at the old Academy of Music in NYC. The opening act was Soft Machine. We arrived a little late and the lights were down and the band had already started playing. As the usher flashlighted us to out seats, the guitar player started a solo, and I stopped dead in my tracks with my jaw dropping... "Wow! Who is the guy?" I thought. At the time I wondered if it could be Ollie Halsall, another fantastic British guitarist who I was aware of. In retrospect I'm amazed that I didn't guess that it could be Holdsworth. A few days later I found an import copy of Soft Machine's new album Bundles at a record store, and the guitarist's identify became known to me. Of course I bought it immediately. Here's the two tracks that feature Allan most prominently:
Just a few months later, Allan's profile was raised when he joined the great drummer Tony Williams in his New Lifetime band in 1975. They recorded their first album, Believe It! One of Allan's compositions that appears on the album remains for me one of the best examples of almost everything about him, with the exception of the signature chordal passages he was noted for in his solo bands later in his career. It's called "Fred."
I saw that band perform twice – or was it three times?
Some of Holdsworth's best recorded performances were as a sideman. Here's a Jean-Luc Ponty tune from his 1977 album Enigmatic Ocean, which features a beautifully-constructed guitar solo starting at right about the 3:00 mark:
In 1977 Holdsworth also joined drummer Bill Bruford's band and recorded the album Feels Good to Me:
Bruford and Holdsworth then teamed up with bassist John Wetton and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson to form the band UK. I saw that band perform at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park in Manhattan in the summer of '78, shortly before leaving NY to move out to California. Check out his beautiful solo in the song "In the Dead of Night" starting at about 3:08:
Feeling constrained by UK (it was reported that Wetton and Jobson wanted him to replay his improvised solos from the album note-for-note in their concerts), he left after that tour, and in 1979 he appeared on a second Bill Bruford album, One of a Kind. Check out this his solo in the final section of the great tune "The Sahara of Snow" starting around 5:22:
Over the next few years, Allan started leading his own bands and recording albums under his own name. I saw him several times in the years since. One of those shows was a Tony Williams tribute project that reunited him with keyboardist Alan Pasqua from the Tony Williams Lifetime days. A double CD and a DVD of their performance at Yoshi's in Oakland was released in 2008. You can find video on Youtube:
The last time I saw him was again at Yoshi's, in a trio format with bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Virgil Donati. Early this year I'd heard he was doing some performing again and I was hoping to see him up here again soon. Alas, that was not to be.
I've gone on too long so I'll wrap this up here. If any of you that have stumbled on this and were not aware of Holdsworth, I hope maybe some of these links have been inspirational and made you want to find out more.
Requiescat in pace, Allan, and thank you for the music.