A Conversation with Allan Holdsworth
Considered by his legion of rabid fans worldwide to be the greatest guitarist on the planet, Allan Holdsworth is also highly regarded as a major innovator by a wide variety of six-string heroes from Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Carlos Santana to John Scofield, John McLaughlin and Kurt Rosenwinkel. In a recent interview, the up-and-coming jazz guitar star Rosenwinkel paid this tribute to the 59-year-old British guitar god. To me, one of the most important guitarists in jazz guitar is definitely Allan Holdsworth. His chordal vocabulary and his linear vocabulary are major parts of the jazz guitar lexicon, although he’s often overlooked when speaking about jazz guitar because stylistically his music would be placed in another genre, maybe fusion or electric jazz. But in terms of innovation on the instrument in jazz, the language that he’s dealing with on the guitar is the closest to the language that Coltrane was dealing with on the saxophone. As a deep fan of Coltrane’s music and his playing, to see that there is a way to that sheets-of-sound kind of language, that Slonimsky kind of approach to linearity…I think that Holdsworth is a very, very significant guitarist.’
Born on August 6, 1946 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, Holdsworth was originally taught music by his father, who was a pianist. First a saxophone player, he graviated to the guitar at the age of 17 and caught on quickly. He began working professionally as a musician in his early 20s, inspired by the likes of Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Raney, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass and John Coltrane.
After playing in local outfits, he relocated to London, where he was taken under the wing of saxophonist Ray Warleigh. By 1972, Holdsworth had joined progressive rockers Tempest, appearing on the group’s self-titled debut a year later. There followed an association with Soft Machine (Bundles, 1974) before he joined Tony Williams Lifetime in 1975, appearing on the recordings Believe It and Million Dollar Legs. Through the ’70s, Holdsworth appeared on recordings by Gong (Expresso and Gazeuse! in 1976 and Expresso II in 1978), Soft Machine (1977’s Triple Echo, 1979’s Time Is The Key), Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean, 1977), U.K. (U.K., 1978) and Bruford (1978’s Feels Good To Me, 1979’s One of a Kind) while also launching his solo career with 1977’s Velvet Darkness. There followed a spate of recordings a leader over the next decades, including 1983’s Road Games, 1985’s Metal Fatigue, 1986’s Atavachron, 1987’s Sand, 1989’s Secrets, 1992’s Wardenclyfe Tower, 1994’s Hard Hat Area and 1996’s None Too Soon. His most recent release are 2000’s The Sixteen Men of Tain, 2002’s All Night Wrong, 2004’s Then! and 2005’s career retrospective, Against The Clock. In 2003, he also toured and recorded as a member of Softworks, which featured alumnae from different eras of the English experimental band, Soft Machine, including saxophonist Elton Dean, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer John Marshall.
An inductee of Guitar Player magazine’s Hall of Fame, Holdsworth is a five-time winner in their readers’ poll. His unconventional chord voicings, searing solos, and passionate melodic phrasess helped place Holdsworth near the top of Musician magazine’s ‘100 greatest guitarists of all time.’ The reluctant, enigmatic guitar hero continues to invert, push, and transform the boundaries of rock, fusion, and jazz every time he hits the bandstand. I caught up with Holdsworth following a gig with this current trio (Joel Taylor on drums, Ernest Tibbs on six-string bass) at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill in Manhattan. The interview took place on a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon in July on a grassy knoll in Central Park.
BM: It was great hearing you play older things like ‘Funnels’ and ‘Protocosmos’ last night at B.B. King’s. It reminded me of seeing Wayne Shorter in concert recently playing his older compositions like ‘Footprints’ and ‘Masqualero.’ These tunes are your standards, part of your legacy.
AH: Yeah, well, that’s because I haven’t written much lately. I had a dry spell for the last five years. But I think it’s OK to play a couple of old tunes.
BM: It certainly is for the audience.
AH: And also, the different musicians interpret them all very differently. So when you play the same tune with new guys, it’s always new in a way and I really like that. I did some gigs with Jimmy (Johnson) and Chad (Wackerman) recently and we played some of the same pieces of music that you heard last night, and it was so different.
BM: This particular rhythm section of Joel Taylor and Ernest Tibbs seems more interactive than others you’ve played with. Joel in particular has a real loose swing feel that seems to open the music up a bit more than usual.
AH: Yeah, I really like playing with Joel. I started liking that approach more open approach after working with (bassist) Dave Carpenter and (drummer) Gary Novak. And then I carried on working with Dave and Joel, which was great too. And when I found Ernest, I was lucky. We needed a bass player for a few gigs and Dave Carpenter wasn’t available, and it was like the last minute deal. Gary Willis was in town so he ended up doing two of the three gigs and then Ernest came in and did the last one. He got the music from Joel, came to the gig and played really great, and we’ve been working together since then. I love working with Joel and Ernest. The vibe that they give as a rhythm section is totally different from other rhythm sections that I’ve played with. Like you say, it’s loose. And I like that. What they do together as a rhythm section also really affects what I play as a soloist, which is cool.
BM: I was also interested to hear that medley of tunes that you put together last night. Is that something that you’ve been doing for a while now?
AH: We started doing that not too long ago, actually. It was just something that came out of one of the pieces of music that ends while I’m doing a volume pedal swell thing, and I thought, ‘This would be a nice way to go into ‘Above And Below,’ the ballad from The Sixteen Men of Tain (2000).’ Then from there we go into the solo section from The Things You See’ (from The Things You See, 1979). And then we end with that little cycle of fourths at the end of Road Games (1983), which is a little drum feature at the end. Yeah, it works pretty good.
BM: You mentioned that you had this period of writers block…
AH: Yeah, what happened was I kind of…When my wife and I split up it kind of threw me into a..I ended up in a different place. You know, we’d been together for 26 years. So I ended up in a house of my own. I lost my studio, which was in my other house, and it just got kind of crazy trying to keep everything together. And I never really got back to a point where I was feeling creative. Sometimes I wouldn’t even want to play the guitar. I’d just look at it and go, ‘Jeez…not today.’ And I think it was just because of all the other stuff that was in my head..you know, it got in the way. I feel better now. About a year ago I met a girl…she’s really, really great. She’s really helping me to where I actually feel good about music again. I was getting into a ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ kind of situation. I kind of got fed up and it was really bugging me, because I love music. It’s just that I didn’t want to participate in it myself. I just felt like I was bored. I couldn’t seem to come up with anything that I hadn’t heard or played before myself. And I started to get into enjoying listening to other people play, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But I feel a bit better now.
BM: It happens. Other great artists have walked away from their careers. Tal Farlow did that. He quit playing guitar and became a sign painter. Johnny Smith did that. He walked away from the New York scene at the height of his career, moved to Colorado and became a flight operator, then started a flight school and never played his guitar again in public. So people have walked away from it, but some inevitably come back with a renewed attitude toward playing.
AH: I felt that’s what I felt like I wanted to do; like if I had some money in the bank I’d say, ‘OK, I’m just not gonna do anything for a while.’ And then just wait for it to come back, if it comes back, rather than trying to push it or just do it so that you can survive. I didn’t like that idea. It doesn’t feel good to do that, to me. When I started music I never thought of it as a job. And when it becomes a job, it might as well be another job; you might as well work at McDonald’s. Because it doesn’t have the same thing as just doing something because you really love it or you really want to do that. I was losing that feeling but I’m feeling a lot better now. Couple of years ago I wasn’t too good with it, though.
BM: Do you ever write on the road while you’re touring? Or do you need to be in a certain environment with specific material around you to be able to create?
AH: I don’t really do very well on the road. Back when I worked with Tony (Williams) I remember I used to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms. That was years ago. Now I like to be at home and just sit down with a guitar and try and come up with a few ideas. If it feels OK then I’ll make notes and just keep going back until I can make it grow into something. But on the road I get panicked, I get really nervous about playing. I’m terrified about playing in front of people. I kind of lose it and then I’m always anxious. And if something’s going on at home then I’m always waiting for it to be the right time to call back there. So I just don’t seem to be able to focus enough to write music when I’m on the road. I can’t get my head empty and free enough to sit down and try to write. I mean, there’s always something going on…some chaos of some kind.
BM: You say that you’re terrified of playing in front of people? Is that something new?
AH: No, I’ve always had that, but I think it got worse. It’s almost immobilizing, to a point. And if it wasn’t for the fact that I know that most of the people…especially now when I’ve been doing it for so many years…really like the music, then I don’t know. And it’s not like I think, ‘Oh God, now I have to impress people.’ It’s not like that. I know that there are people in the audience who really like what I do, and so there’s no real reason for me to be afraid of that because nobody’s really looking for anything. But at the same time, it doesn’t help me from not being scared to death. I just kind of freeze up, clam up…and if I start thinking two or three chords ahead, I’m dead. In my mind, where I get to this one chord where I can’t remember what it is…as soon as I catch that up in real time, it’s the big screw up. As soon as I start finding myself thinking too much, I try and distract myself somehow. I don’t know. I don’t know if I was cut out for performing, actually. It’s like really scary to me.
BM: I read that Barbara Streisand actually has crippling stage fright.
AH: Yeah. I wish I didn’t. It’s easier in the studio because there’s no real audience. It’s easier for me to relax in that situation than at a gig.
BM: That must be while you’ve had this anxiety over the years about live recording.
AH: Yeah, I can’t seem to be able to do it. There’s always something wrong with it and it drives me crazy. In fact, the only reason that any live stuff has come out at all is because there’s so many bootlegs out there that it’s like, ‘Oh well! Who cares? Everybody’s heard them all. They’re all kinda lame.’
BM: What about that live in Tokyo recording, All Night Wrong (2002)?
AH: Oh yeah. It was only supposed to come out in Japan and Sony did it. And they have that new super Audio CD player with a ridiculously high sample frequency. So they did it live to two track but at the same time they had another guy in another room who was doing a 5.1 mix of the same show. And that one actually sounded good. I just think when you’ve got that much space and it’s a live gig in a club, it just seems to be more forgiving to the music. It’s almost like you were really there, as opposed to a sterile two-track, where they always sound so…like a really bad studio recording with no vibe. You wouldn’t know that it was live, really, from the sound of it. But the 5.1 thing I think is pretty awesome for live music. You really kind of feel like you’re there.
BM: Speaking of bootlegs, I saw a CD the other day at a store here in town…it’s a live I.O.U. gig being marketed by (I.O.U. singer) Paul Williams.
AH: Oh yeah, it’s a bootleg. Yeah, I have a little bit of a problem with that guy.
BM: Yeah, I would think so. There’s a big picture of him on the inside and none of you. It’s like the Paul Williams show.
AH: Yeah, except that he’s ripping everybody else off. It was from a tape of a gig we did in Japan in 1985. He took the audio portion of what was a video and made his own album cover. Pretty sad.
BM: So he obviously didn’t get any permission from you to do this.
AH: No. There’s this guy that he used to work with…a guy called Shawn Ahearn. If I see him, I’ll deck him. He runs a label called Pangaea Records. He put out this bootleg and he wouldn’t stop. Even after I said, ‘You can’t do that!’ he went right ahead and did it. There are certain people all over the world who make bootlegs, but I don’t know these people. You know, they’re people just trying to make some money and they know that a person in my position can’t do anything — you can’t really stop them, you can’t sue them. It’s not like Madonna, where you can get all this stuff stopped. But when it turns out to be guys that you know, that are supposed to be your friends, it’s kind of brutal. I mean, that’s happened to me a lot in the last few years. I was dealing with a lot of small record companies and they’re all wonky. It’s not good. They start out as your friend and then they end up like the enemy.
BM: I’ve lost track of all the labels that you’ve been with in the past 20 years.
AH: Gnarly Geezer put out The Sixteen Men of Tain album. That was the last studio album that I did. I just put out a compilation (Against The Clock) on another small label, which is Alternity. That’s the last album that I’ll be doing for those guys. I think I’m just going to do it myself from now on and put it out through my website. Because these other guys…they’ll just rip you off. They’ll give you an advance for a record and treat it like it was a loan. But I didn’t borrow money from anybody, I got paid for a project.
BM: More and more artists are gaining control of their own music now and putting out product on their own websites. They might be selling fewer copies, in some cases, but they’re making more money ultimately because they get to keep more money per CD than if they had the standard record company percentage, which is miniscule.
AH: Yeah, that’s definitely the way to go. But I must say, I was pretty lucky because almost all the albums I did were license deals and I got the licenses back for all of them last year. So I’ve got ten albums that I could reissue on my own label, if I wanted to. I haven’t really done anything about it yet because it’s kind of a really big expense if you want to reissue all of them. That would be like pressing up a 1,000 records times 10. And I would have to think about which one I would want to reissue first.
BM: Bill Bruford is doing that right now on his new label, Summerfold. He’s got control of all his masters from the Bruford band recordings that he did with you and Jeff Berlin, and he’s putting that stuff out now.
AH: Oh yeah? That’s great! If you have a website and people are going there, why not sell your own stuff on it? For the little label I did the last thing for, we’re using my website to sell the album. But when we had a fallout, I took their Buy button away, and they weren’t happy at all. And that made me think, ‘OK, if they were kind of happy with that Buy button, then maybe I should just start my own label and just sell my own stuff and not have to worry about being clobbered.’
BM: Now that you’re back in writing mode, you should document the new stuff and put it out yourself.
AH: Yeah, I’ve got some stuff that we’ve recorded. The tracks are down but I haven’t mixed them or finished them, really. I think we played two pieces of new music last night. But lately I haven’t had to time to address my own thing because I’ve been so busy playing on tracks for different people, sort of like friends…just pay-the-rent kind of things. Everytime I wanted to get to it I think, ‘I’ve got to find a way to raise some money,’ so I’ll go and play on somebody else’s stuff. And so I just never got to it. But I really want to get to it as soon as I can.
BM: Do you ever compose on keyboards?
AH: No, I can’t play piano at all. I like to work with the SynthAxe, though.
BM: That’s strictly a composing tool for you at this point?
AH: Yeah, I use it in studio. And it’s a great instrument, but it’s falling apart now.
BM: Not very road-worthy?
AH: No, all the cables look like hell, with the plastic peeling off and everything. I keep having to wrap them with duct tape. And you have these big 20-pin connectors for it. It’s not something you want to go and mess around with a soldiering iron. I can’t see well enough to do that. You know, I’ve always been fascinated by electronics but when I opened that thing when I first got it, it currently have two of them. One actually is in perfect working order, the other one works for about 20 minutes. So you gotta be quick with that one. I love the keys on it. I think that was the real genius about the instrument. The trigger strings have got a slight time lag but the keys are instantaneous, just like playing a keyboard. It’s so beautiful to go and play a chord while you hold the keys down, and there’s one key for each string. When you hold a chord down you can take your hand off and move it to the next chord so you can get this more seamless, piano-like thing, which would be very difficult to do with any other kind of MIDI guitar controller. So I’m really fond of that thing but it’s going to die eventually. I’ll have to get a Roland guitar synth or something else to replace it. I’d really miss having a guitar synthesizer if this other one died.
BM: Is there any direction that you’re currently thinking in these days, compositionally?
AH: I think some of the things that I’m hearing now are different than anything that I’ve ever done before. And the reason I know that is because I’m writing out chords for these pieces of music and I’m finding it a struggle to get them to fall under my hands. Whereas, sometimes if you write a tune after you played it a couple of times, you can get it. But I was having to really concentrate trying to play these new pieces. I think they’re pretty challenging and they sound a little different than anything I’ve done before. It’s hard for me to explain it. I guess I’ll have to wait until it comes out before I can do that.
BM: A very un-guitaristic approach?
AH: Yeah. I started trying to work on the pieces that have open strings because I never usually use open strings at all. But I tried to write one piece of music where almost every chord has one open string in it somewhere, so the voicings are stretched wide as opposed to being just close. It’s got low notes as well as the high notes. Because sometimes if you play four notes close together you’re not going to be able to put a nice big bottom on it…from the guitar, that is. But with these I was able to do some of that. I think it’s a cool piece of music. Not finished, but in progress.
BM: Does hearing other musicians have an impact on your own writing?
AH: Definitely, yeah. For example, I went to see John Scofield when he was playing at Musicians Institute in California about five or six years ago. Gary Willis was playing bass with him and it was beautiful and incredible. Then I went home and wrote this piece of music called ‘Above and Below,’ which took me a few days to complete. And that was a direct result of hearing him play, although it sounds nothing like how he plays.
BM: It’s filtered through your own aesthetic.
AH: Yeah, I do that a lot. I get a lot from everybody. Even things that don’t have anything to do with music. Just seeing certain things.. a plant, a tree, a mountain or a big building…where it kind of gives you a feeling. Or movies too. I always wanted to do that, put music to movies. I think it would be too complicated for me to do it, in terms of all the technical stuff that goes on…the way that it’s done. But I definitely hear it. I like to look at something and then imagine what I’m looking at as making a sound. That’s cool.
BM: It sounds like you’re on the verge of a creative explosion.
AH: I’d like to think so. I’ve just been trying to get all of the other things in my life kind of behind me so I can start feeling like I’m gonna stand at the starting gate again instead of struggling to get up to the line.
BM: Some creative people seem to thrive on turmoil. Others shut down and can’t really create in the face of turmoil.
AH: I have friends that think I thrive on turmoil because they see me in it so much. It’s not true. I keep saying, ‘I’m not doing this on purpose.’ I kind of need everything to be more in order for my head to be free. Otherwise, I’ve got too much going on…too much chaos.
BM: Right. I can’t really begin writing a story, for instance, until my apartment is cleaned up. I need all those loose ends tied up before I can focus and concentrate on my work.
AH: Oh yeah! I’m like that in the studio. I’ve put one back together in the house that I’m living in now. And after a while, if you’ve been working on something, you get the cables going all over until it’s just a mess. So if I’m starting another project I have to really straighten things out before I even want to go in there. So I know what you mean. It’s like, you can’t really get serious with something if there’s chaos around you.
BM: You have to clear your mind before you can create, whether it’s music, painting, writing…
AH: Yeah, and it’s hard to work with people around, sometimes, for me. While I was married I had a studio in the house and it was like a real studio. You could go in there and nobody could hear me at all. They could all be in there watching tv and I wouldn’t annoy anybody, and they wouldn’t annoy me. And I would never feel like somebody was ear-wigging because they might not necessarily like the music at all. But the thing is, they didn’t have to hear it. But then there’s the other kind of situation. Like, I was staying with a friend of mine for about a year and it was difficult for me to work when he was around. He’s the sweetest guy and is a musician himself, but it was impossible for me to play around him, and I used to feel so bad because he would deliberately stay out of the house just to let me work. His job would bring him home fairly early, like 2:30 in the afternoon, but he started really early so his hours were completely opposite of mine. I’d be going to bed real late and getting up real late. And a couple of times he wouldn’t come back home from work right away. And once I saw him…he was outside the house and he wouldn’t come in because he knew that I was working on something and he also knew that it’s kind of hard for me to play with other people there. So as soon as he gets in the house, even if he’s in the bedroom, it’s all off. I have to turn it all off. It’s like I’m conscious of someone else, whether they’re looking or not.
BM: Because that brings into the picture things like judgment and expectation. That can be inhibiting to the creative flow.
AH: Yeah, it’s embarrassing.
BM: Do you currently own an acoustic guitar?
AH: No, I’ve been trying to get one from this guy in San Diego who makes replicas of the original Selmer Maccaferri, like the one Django Reinhardt played. It’s got an oval D-hole…absolutely beautiful. It’s called a Del’ Arte. It’s like a cross between an f-hole guitar and a flattop guitar. Flattops always sounded a little too nasal — lots of high end, lots of low end and nothing in the middle. And the Maccaferris are the opposite — really big in the mid-range. Plus, they’re comfortable to play because they have more of an electric setup. Instead of a pin bridge, the strings are pressing down much like they would on an archtop. It just feels more comfortable and it sounds so beautiful. I would definitely play one if I could get one. But the problem with me is everytime I need to buy a piece of gear I always end buying a piece of gear that’s associated with either the studio or the electric guitar rather than the acoustic guitar, because I’m not sure how much I’d use it.
BM: I wonder how you would deal with the fact that your acoustic wouldn’t be giving you that sustain quality that is so much a signature of your electric sound.
AH: Yeah, well, that’s true. I love to hear other people play acoustic guitar. I’m not very fond of hearing myself play it. But I think when I really quit playing acoustic guitar was when I got the SynthAxe, because that just opened up this other door and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I can leave that other guitar behind completely.’ Because there was a period after I had been playing the SynthAxe for about a year, I was even getting frustrated with electric guitar. There was a point where I was actually close to making a decision to just play the SynthAxe and forget about the guitar.
BM: I remember that period when you were playing the SynthAxe almost exclusively. And you had that plastic tube that ran from the instrument to your mouth to help you shape the notes, like Peter Frampton or Stevie Wonder did in the ’70s with the Talking Box.
AH: Yeah, I always wanted to play a horn and I loved that way that you could shape the note with that gadget. And because it was an analog device, you couldn’t record it in MIDI or anything. It was made by Niles Steiner, before he made the EVI or the EWI. I think it was called The Mouth Destruction. Basically, you can set it so that there’s no sound at all and as you blow it raises the volume and opens the filter, so it’s pretty organic. I was really getting into it. It was really great to be able to play a note and then make it loud and make it soft, then make it loud again…all the things that you can’t do with a guitar that you can do with a horn or a violin. So I was loving that.
BM: Is that still a tool for you in the studio?
AH: Yeah, I don’t use the blower so much for composing. It’s more something that I did for coloring solos. But I still have it. I’ve got like three or four of Ôem. If I see one anywhere at an old music store, I always try and buy it.
BM: …or in a museum.
AH: Yeah, along with the rest of my antiquated stuff!
BM: Well, you’ve gone through so many instruments through the years. Do you still have your long neck baritone guitars?
AH: No, those are gone. Although Bill DeLap, the guy who built those baritone guitars for me, has made me another baritone guitar with a 34 inch scale that goes down to a C. The other baritone guitar I had, which I named Boris, was 36 inches and went down to B flat. And then I also had Gonan, which was the biggest one of all — it was 38 inches long and went down to an A. And he made me a piccolo guitar too that was tuned up to a high A. I was trying to get a guitar orchestra going.
BM: But the one that you played last night was…
AH: Just a regular DeLap. You know, I designed a couple of guitars with Carvin and was on the road with those for a number of years, and I always had a few custom made headless guitars too. I was really fond of headless guitars. It’s such a struggle for me to jump and forth from a headless guitar to a regular guitar. If you get used to playing a (headless) Steinberger, it’s really hard to go back to a headstock. I can’t really describe it, it just feels awkward.
BM: I recently saw a photo of Les Paul playing a headless guitar back in 1948 at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. The tuning pegs were on the cutaway. It looked like a Klein guitar.
AH: Amazing! Well, he’s a brilliant guy. Way ahead of his time.
BM: Speaking of guitars, I remember being at Bill Laswell’s studio in Greenpoint, and he showed me a white Gibson SG that he said once belonged to you. What guitar was that?
AH: That would’ve been the guitar that I played in the Tony Williams days. The weird thing about that…I used to have two SGs, a white one and a black one, which was really rare. One of those SGs I had painted and it didn’t come out right, it came out pink. And I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t play a pink guitar.’ So I had the guy paint it blue. I had a number of SGs but the last SG I owned was sold by the woman who tour managed Tony Williams Lifetime…while I was out in the country. He didn’t get paid so he took my guitar and sold it, and I couldn’t get it back. There was nothing I could do about it. It was sold and was just hanging up there in the shop. And I was like, ‘Jeez, I gotta buy my own guitar.’ That was a blue SG with two pickups.
BM: The one I saw was white with three pickups.
AH: Well, I actually owned two or three of Ôem at different times. It would be interesting to see it.
BM: Have you listened to any of these CDs that are being reissued now to a whole new audience that didn’t get it the first time around — the Bill Bruford stuff, the Tony Williams Lifetime stuff, all the electric Miles stuff. Now, 20-year-old kids are hearing all of this stuff for the first time.
AH: And I’m starting to notice it in the audiences. Because it was like maybe 10 or 15 years ago you could see the audience getting older with the band. But now we play a lot of places in Europe — France, Germany, Sweden — as well as in Japan and in the States too where there’s a lot younger people in the audience. And sometimes I wonder how they found out about our music because usually that doesn’t happen. So I guess the reissuing of all that stuff is a good thing.
BM: All that electric Miles stuff that has been reissued in the past 10 years has spawned new bands of young hotshot players from places like the Berklee College of Music who are forming bands to interpret the music from Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson or Live-Evil. They’re inspired by that sound and it’s fresh to them.
AH: That’s great. I’m glad to hear it
BM: These recent Bruford sound great. Have you heard that stuff?
AH: I have a good friend who’s also a big fan…because I don’t really have any of my own recordings,I usually end up giving them away and then I try to get them a little later on. But he played me some of One Of A Kind, which I hadn’t heard it in 25 years. It was pretty good, I thought…for the time and everything.
BM: That must’ve been an interesting band to tour in.
AH: Yeah, it was. I think if it hadn’t been for the U.K. experience I might’ve stayed with Bill a little bit longer because I really enjoyed playing with him. But with U.K. it was kind of uncomfortable because we had such different tastes in music. All of the guys were great guys, it wasn’t like a personal issue at all. We got along really well. It’s just that (bassist) John (Wetton) and (keyboardist) Eddy (Jobson) were of one mind musically and Bill and I were of another. And then when I started working with Gary Husband…I had just been introduced to him and played with a couple of times and I thought, ‘Oh man! I wanna play with THIS guy.’ So I decided to form my own band and that’s what cut short the Bill thing.
BM: What was Jeff Berlin like in those days?
AH: He was great; an incredible musician. I think he can be a little challenging to some people but I always really enjoyed working with him. I haven’t seen him for years.
BM: Do you have any thoughts on the closing of The Bottom Line here in New York? That was a place where fans were able to see you play in a fairly intimate space for many years.
AH: Yeah, I was sorry to hear that it closed. The first time I played there was with Tony (Williams). I think that was right around the time that it opened. And he kept taking us back every time we came through. Yeah, I miss that place. It was a cool place to play.
BM: I recently saw an old picture of you playing violin. What was that about?
AH: When I was working in a Top 40 band in England, before I moved to London, I was out just walking around in the town in Sumberlin and I happened to walk past this pawn shop. And I don’t even know why I did it but I went in and said to the proprietor, ‘Do you have any old violins?’ And he comes with one and says, ‘How about this one?’ It had no strings on it but it had a bow that looked like it was in reasonable shape. So I bought it for ten bucks. I took it to a violin repair shop and they put a new soundpost on it and the bridge and strung it up. I started playing around with it for a while… on and off for about a year.
BM: Any gigs?
AH: I think I did play it on a couple of gigs with Tempest. I think I might’ve also played it a couple of times with Soft Machine. But I always really liked violin. It felt natural to me. I often wish that I had been presented with a violin when I was young. It just seemed like it was comfortable for me to play right away, but I couldn’t play chords on it and by that time I was really getting into chords and stuff. And I started dedicating time to playing just one instrument, I didn’t have enough time to learn how to play two. All those guys who play multiple instruments amaze me. They must have split brains or something.
BM: Speaking of violin, I saw Jean-Luc Ponty recently. He was doing a trio gig at Carnegie Hall with Stanley Clarke and Bela Fleck.
BM: It was really good, and it provided a vehicle for Jean-Luc to play more classically oriented than I had ever heard him play before. It was an electrified violin but he didn’t use effects and he was dealing more with virtuosic chamber kind of stuff.
AH: Yeah, I really love his playing. He’s an incredible musician.
BM: Have you been in touch with him?
AH: No I haven’t been, actually. Last time I spoke to him was about four years ago. We were supposed to hook up with him one time when I was in Paris but we never did. But yeah, I really like Jean-Luc as a guy as well as a musician. Pretty incredible player.
BM: I hadn’t seen him in a long time and he looked exactly the same as he did 20 years ago. Hadn’t gained a pound. I’m amazed by these people who remain eternally youthful looking.
AH: Huh, I’ve got a few jowls going myself. Ha-ha.
BM: That record you guys did, Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1975) is a fusion classic. It was interesting to hear two guitars on that record, you and Daryl Stuermer (who later played with Genesis and for the past 20 years has been in the Phil Collins band). Two very different approaches to the instrument — you with that flowing hammer-on legato thing and Daryl machine gun-picking every note.
AH: Oh yeah, that was a nice contrast. I enjoyed that.
BM: Any other upcoming projects that you might want to talk about?
AH: I just want to get back to it. I’m starting to feel comfortable with the way things are going in the other parts of my life. So I’m getting that feeling back of wanting to actually create something instead not wanting to do anything. A couple of years ago I would get up in the morning and not want to do a thing. I’d go in the studio, look at everything and go, ‘Oh Jeez…not today.’ But that’s not how it should be and it’s not how it was before. I was always pretty productive. I always worked really hard on projects and put in ridiculous amounts of hours in the studio. My daily routine was: Get up, go ride my bike, start in the studio at noon and then I’d be in there until two o’clock in the morning. And this would go on for months at a time. Now, I want to get that back. And I feel more like that now. I’m not sure that I’m going to have that amount of energy, as an old guy. But just so long as I don’t feel like I’ve been feeling the last few years, I’ll be OK. It feels like it’s kind of changing. So I’m really looking forward to getting back to finishing these new pieces of music and putting out another studio album with no old tunes on it.
BM: And hopefully on your own website: www.therealallanholdsworth.com
AH: That’s what I’m shooting for. That way, I’ve only got my own self to blame. Yeah, I’m starting my own little label called Concrete Balloon. So we’ll see how that flies.