Montreal Gazette (2009)

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Guitar strings sing like Coltrane; Allan Holdsworth probably wouldn't toot his own horn, but his fans worship the singular axeman

Bernard Perusse 28 September 2009 Montreal Gazette

Guitar-based instrumental music with a progressive bent mostly flies below the critical radar. While rock scribes compete to discover the next big Talking Heads or Radiohead wannabe-with-attitude, an enthusiastic counterculture is left to post comments on YouTube about another new Allan Holdsworth concert clip.

"Allan or Alien? He's unique. Nobody can copy him," writes one devotee. "A tremendous musician who should be the most famous guitarist in the world," raves another.

The fans regularly compare Holdsworth with John Coltrane rather than other axe gods. Holdsworth, a soft-spoken and gracious man in conversation, would probably never draw such a link himself, but when he talks about the sounds that shaped and continue to influence his playing, the connection with virtuosos on other instruments begins to explain itself.

It started when Holdsworth was learning his craft in the British city of Bradford in West Yorkshire, with the realization that there was no point trying to imitate guitarists like Hank B. Marvin or Charlie Christian, who were among his early heroes.

"I used to try to copy (Christian's) solos, then I realized it wasn't doing me any good, because I just got good at sounding like him," Holdsworth said during a Gazette interview at the Hyatt Regency bar last week. "It made me focus on trying to find whatever it was that I wanted to do."

And it seemed that quest might not necessarily be guided by six strings. If Holdsworth heard interesting sounds on sax, trumpet or piano, he said, that's where his mind went.

"I just wanted something where I could play a note and then manipulate it - make it louder or softer," he said. For that reason, he had originally wanted a saxophone, which was too expensive. He made do with the hollow "plink" of a used 10-shilling guitar his father, Sam, had bought for him.

"I played a note and nothing happened," he said. "I wanted to blow it." Seeing a local skiffle group fronted by a friend's brother, however, kept Holdsworth's enthusiasm for the guitar alive. To this day, though, the phrasing of other instruments influences his playing, he said.

After a stint in prog-rock group Tempest, Holdsworth landed in the legendary band the Soft Machine in 1973. "I enjoyed every minute of it," he said. "Everyone in that band was a stellar musician."

An opportunity in 1975 to move to the United States and join the New Tony Williams Lifetime - fronted by the highly influential jazz-rock drummer and Miles Davis alumnus - was too good to pass up, Holdsworth said. And it provided him with an important insight.

"Tony never told me what to play or when to play it," he said. "I could hang myself - and that was the greatest lesson. So when I started my own band, I wanted that to happen with the musicians I was working with. I wanted them to play the music in the way they wanted to play it."

Gary Husband, who played drums in that first Holdsworth-led group, the IOU Band, is back with him on his trio's current tour, along with another frequent collaborator, bassist Jimmy Johnson. Time and again, Holdsworth stopped to sing the praises of his bandmates. At one point during the interview, Husband drifted over to the table and silently left a glass of red wine for Holdsworth.

"These two guys are going to be unbelievable - and I'm going to be hanging on," he said, laughing, about the trio's two Pop Montreal shows coming up this week.

It's that chemistry that always makes his music better than what he first heard in his head, Holdsworth said. It's also what gives his work its own special brand of soul - a term rarely used in connection with Holdsworth's kind of music.

Which is what, exactly?

Some call it fusion, Holdsworth acknowledged, but that's not quite it. "When I hear 'fusion,' I think of Tricky-Dick stuff - really hairy melodies played in unison," he said. "It's like, 'Why?' If the whole idea, in the original bebop days, was to get to soloing, then that's all it should be about."

In the end, Holdsworth said, his music is not "guitar-istic."

"It falls in all the cracks, from classical music to jazz," he said. "Anywhere there's a hole in the floor, my music falls through it. But that's okay."