Allan Holdsworth (Overview 76-79, Facelift 1990)

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Allan Holdsworth

Facelift, issue 2

Phil Howitt

When I first started researching the article to accompany this discography a good six months ago, I originally intended doing a general overview of Allan Holdsworth's recording career, as with the Bill Bruford piece in issue one. However, the further I got into it, the more I realised that there wee much more to the Holdsworth catalogue than I'd thought. So, the article accompanying what I'm pretty sure is a complete discography, is intended to cover the period from late 1976-79, partly because it was a period of exceptional activity for him, and one that I think produced some of his most diverse work, and partly because I can't claim to be overly familiar with either his early appearances with the likes of Tony Williams or Jon Hiseman, or else his more recent work as a predominantly solo artist. (Incidentally, I'd be very interested if anyone wished to cover either era, particularly the latter).

So, we start with Gong and their album 'Gazeuse!'. The band had fallen pretty much into the lap of Pierre Moerlen by this time, with the departure of Steve Hillage and Mike Howlett from the first 'post-pixie' line-up that recorded 'Shamal'. Didier Malherbe remained, contributing mostly on flute to 'Gazeuse!' but the sound, as with most of the Pierre Moerlen's Gong outfits, was heavily percussive. Holdsworth blends in beautifully on the tracks he played on, and I reckon that 'Expresso' is as good a demonstration of his talent as there is: a typically fluid solo over very liquid percussive sounds. It's a completely different style from Daevid Allen's Gong (Shamal fell somewhere in between) but the genius of Pierre Moerlen gives the lie to any thoughts that the bend were cashing in on the Gong legend. A year later, when the band came round to recording 'Expresso II', they had settled on a basic four piece line-up: Pierre Moerlen and brother Benoit, Mireille Bauer and Hansford Rowe on bass, a very sound rhythm section supplemented by various soloists including Holdsworth. Of the guests, Holdsworth is the most prominent, appearing on three tracks which stand out from the rest. Darryl Way is the additional soloist on 'Sleepy' a classy well-structured track, and excels himself here. But it is Holdsworth who stamps his mark all over 'Soli', the piece which opens the second side, trading solos with marimba with such individuality that Boa Logaza (sic) couldn't possibly hope to match it on the live version. This brings us to what is the real significance of Holdsworth's stint with Gong: Pierre Moerlen assembled over several albums a collection of brilliant percussionists, but his bands often lacked musicians of equal standing in other departments to do his compositions full justice. Thus his best work seems to be his largely 'solo' work, such as the awesome 10/8 suite from 'Time Is The Key' or else the pieces which do feature genuinely talented soloists such as Holdsworth, Didier Malherbe or Darryl Way. The rest suffers in comparison, 'Leave It Open' being particularly disappointing. Holdsworth's contribution to 'Time Is The Key' is restricted to a very low key appearance on side two. Holdsworth is credited with lead guitar on much of it but only really makes himself heard, albeit in spectacular manner, on 'Arabesque'.

Bill Bruford, of course, had had a brief fling with Gong himself. Not that this is particularly startling: any musician with any credibility seems to have passed through the Gong ranks at some point: a vast array of drummers including Bruford, Chris Cutler of Henry Cow, Brian Davison (ex Nice) and Pip Pyle, as well as the likes of Holdsworth and Dave Stewart. Mike Howlett reckoned on thirteen line-ups in three years! For Bruford, his stay with Gong, coming hard on the heels of a hectic few years with an experimental King Crimson. must have been a further impetus to explore new areas, and in recording 'Feels Good To Me" and 'One Of A Kind' he found an ally in Allan Holdsworth. Dave Stewart surrendered much of his distinctive quirky style for the first album of Bruford compositions but Holdsworth revelled in the freedom given him. Note how he painstakingly builds an intricate solo on 'Back To The Beginning' and weaves his way through the percussive anarchy of 'Beelzebub'. By 'One Of A Kind', the musicians in volved had been reduced to four, giving Bruford much more of a chance to develop a real character of their own: groups had existed with some of the same approaches (the best of them being Isotope), but none had produced such a full sound or such authoritative drumming. In between the two albums, Bruford and Holdsworth had operated on more equal terms in UK (Bruford's band being essentially his own with increasing input from Dave Stewart). I said much and hinted more about my own feelings on UK in the last issue - really the album speaks for itself, although, to be fair, side one is almost saved by a Holdsworth solo on 'In The Dead Of Night'.

What is astonishing is that Holdsworth's work with UK coincided with a period when he collaborated with John Stevens, for a more obvious contrast you could not possibly find. In an era when his only other excursion into what could properly be called 'jazz' was with Gordon heck, this is a real departure. Retouch is reviewed elsewhere, and is all I've heard of the Holdsworth/Stevens collaborations, but it is a million miles away not only from UK, but even from the organised chaos of Gong. It remains a testament to his abilities that he blended in perfectly with John Stevens' vision of experimentation. If this was a test to see whether or not Holdsworth could improvise at the most demanding level, then he passed the test with flying colours.

His work on Gordon Beck's 'Sunbird' album is equally as interesting. Ian Carr once said about Gordon neck that 'his playing is full of joy' and you need look no further than this album for proof. As on 'Retouch', Holdsworth adopts a more mellow guitar sound on the non-acoustic tracks: the highlights are the uplifting 'The Gathering' and the lengthy 'Flight', but it's also a good chance to hear him in other contexts: acoustically on the upbeat title-track, and playing fairly basic violin parts on at least three tracks. Thoughts that Beck's piano playing was an ideal foil for the guitar of Holdsworth were obviously shared by the duo themselves - in a career not noted for collaborations with other artists lasting for more than a couple of albums, Holdsworth has worked alongside Beck on may occasions: From nucleus right through to their latest offering. In addition, Beck was the resident pianist on Holdsworth's tour in 1985.

Holdsworth shared the guitar work in Jean-Luc Ponty's band with Daryl Stuermer, and as was the case with Gong, the other guitarist suffers in comparison. In a world where there are guitarists aplenty, few have carved themselves a real style of their own, that can't be dismissed as derivative to some degree. many have infallible techniques, but I can think of only Holdsworth and Fripp who have combined that with a truly original style. This particular Ponty line-up, with its three-pronged attack of guitar, keyboard and electric violin, invites comparisons with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, although the sound here is nowhere near as harsh or rough around the edges. Jean-Luc may not be breaking much new ground with this album, but its still a worthwhile addition to your collection.

Holdsworth's most prized attribute must have been to turn basically good bands into exceptional ones. This period is most interesting because it sees him flitting from one outfit to another principally as a sideman - only in Bruford and the jazz combos of Beck and Stevens does he seem firmly enrolled as part of the general set-up. Yet his soloing for Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty and the Soft Machine before them gave very listenable albums a little something extra: the prospect of a timely Holdsworth intervention is always irresistible. In the eighties, he's pursued a different direction - one which sees him composing for himself principally on the Synth-axe, and discarding past styles and approaches. Obviously employment as a sidemen in other people's bands is a rather one-dimensional existence for anyone aspiring to be a complete musician, but against this it must be said that on many of his solo ventures, Holdsworth has allowed his own talents as a composer to be obscured by a series of forgettable vocalists. I' ve still to hear much of his work, so I shouldn't really make sweeping statements, but for such a prodigious talent to abandon the guitars which produced all those masterpieces seems a little sad.