The Open End (Boston Sound Report 1988)
Summary: Allan Holdsworth discusses his early and current musical influences, including jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, saxophonists like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and artists outside of music, particularly M.C. Escher. He talks about his preferences in beer, the difference between live and studio soloing, and his practice approach, emphasizing the balance between technique and creative improvisation. Holdsworth mentions his changing musical direction and experiments with technology, including his use of Macintosh computers and his desire to create an orchestral, classical solo album with the SynthAxe. He reflects on his experiences in music and offers advice to aspiring musicians while sharing his plans to continue working with his band and focusing on guitar in the future. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
The Boston Sound Report
"Quality music with no boundaries"
Vol.1 February 15, 1988
The Open End
Open chordal swells, legato melodies and aggressive passionate runs are trademarks of Allan Holdsworth. Always startlingly new, Holdsworth's music is an open end.
Doug and Mike interviewed Allan Holdsworth at The Paradise.
BSR: Who are some of your early and current influences?
AH: Some of my early influences were Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, I suppose, Jimmy Rainey and Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and all those guys. They were the records that my father had. He was a jazz piano player, and he always had these records lying around. This was before I started playing. So I heard them all when I was growing up.
BSR: Were there any saxophone players who influenced you?
AH: Oh yeah; I liked Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker... Michael Brecker is unbelievable. I listen to all different kinds of instruments. I do like horn players because I wanted to play the horn. I didn't really want to play the guitar.
BSR: It doesn't show. (laughs)
AH: It does to me.
BSR: Are there any artists outside of music who have influenced you?
AH: There are a lot of people. I really like the work of M.C. Escher. I was very inspired by his work.
BSR. Captain Kirk at all?
AH: Not really, but Star Trek.
BSR: What is your favorite beer?
AH: Favorite beer? Well, there are a lot of good beers. It's like asking who is your favorite musician. I suppose I like Timothy Taylors, that's my favorite. You'll never find it anywhere but in a small town in Yorkshire.
BSR: Do you approach soloing live differently than you approach soloing in hic studio?
AH: Not really. I accept the fact that the environment is so different. I just try and play well no matter what. Some nights it doesn't happen and some nights it does. It's like that in the studio.
BSR: Do you do your solos in one take, or do you "punch and splice"?
AH: No, I don't edit. I've done solos with other bands that were punched in. Now I just try to do more solos; I try to do five or six takes until I get the one I like.
BSR: When you're soloing, are you thinking of the solo note by note, or do you create an outline in your mind?
AH: I'm thinking of the chord sequence and what I can do with it creatively, what notes I can play over the chords. It's just normal stuff. I try and do it a different way. I don't want it to come out sounding formulated, or like someone else's formulation. I want to get my own playing up to a certain level, or to try to get better. Well, for example, a lot of guys come up to me and say, "you can't possibly be a great improviser if you have never played certain kinds of music."
I don't think that's true at all. For example, you can't say that to an Indian musician. Try telling an Indian drummer that he can't improvise just because he's never played “Stella by Starlight."
I want to be freer in the way I hear things harmonically. I do the same things other people do, but I try to do them in a different way. I try to figure out all the ways I can play different scales or different chords to make them sound different. Essentially, they may be the same - I may be using the same scales that other people would use over those chords. I try to juggle the notes around in such a way that the order in which they are played makes it sound different.
BSR: Do you have a practice regimen that promotes this type of playing?
AH: No, I just improvise, record what I play, listen to it and be totally depressed by it. I continually try to pick things out that I like and to never do the things that I don’t like. I can never get rid of all the bad stuff- I keep trying.
BSR: So there is no repetition of exercises, or anything like that? When you practice, do you just "play?"
AH: No, not at all. I have a different schedule. Sometimes I just practice, but if I find something new, like a new harmonic thing, or a new scale or something, I will practice that. But that it is totally separate from improvising. I think when you improvise you should be unconsciously releasing all of the things that you have learned in the past. It's like an unconscious release of all the knowledge that you have accumulated over the years that you have been playing.
I never want my playing to sound like I practiced a certain thing in order to be able to play that one thing. I want to have enough technique so that I can improvise without having to say, "Oh well, every time I do this I must do it this way, because it is the only way I can physically execute it." It has its drawbacks, because sometimes you get into a situation that you can't get out of - your technique lets you down. I try to break that barrier down so that I don't have to worry about the technical aspect of it. If you practice certain things, you will become good at practicing them. I don't want to be good at practicing; I want to learn how to improvise. Obviously, you still have to practice to learn where certain things are on the instrument.
BSR: Do you feel there has been a change in tone or intention from Road Games to Sand?
AH: I think that my playing is continuously changing; it has been since I can remember. I don't feel any differently about the way I play; I’m still as disappointed with what I do now as I was when I started. That never changes. But I think that what I am doing continually changes. Like living - or being a musician - it is continually a learning process. If I thought that it was staying the same, I wouldn't play any more. I would give up. I’m scared of getting to a point where I won't be able to absorb anymore. People can only absorb so much. Music is a cumulative knowledge. It's actually handed down from generation to generation. If you put every person on a deserted island, you would soon find out who the geniuses were, but music is not like that. Things are handed down and passed on. You might hear something that you think sounds dated. I'd always give them a lot of credit, because they had nothing else, it came from them. That's a great thing. But it is definitely accumulated.
BSR: When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
AH: I really didn't want to be a musician, I was in it just as a hobby. Then people started asking me to play in local bands where lived in England. I started doing it gradually. I was working in factories and mills in Yorkshire, and I got this gig with a Top 40 band and we played in this pub constantly. I did that job because I thought, "I could practice during the day, I didn't have to work, and I could play the Top 40 stuff at night." It was good because I could work on my sound. Even though I hated the music, I could still be a musician. So it was a good period for me, a good learning experience.
BSR: One of your new directions seems to be using the Macintosh.
AH: Well, actually, I only used the Macintosh once, and that was on "MacMan." It wasn't even my computer, the Macintosh doesn't work very well with the Synth-Axe. I have an Atari computer with Steinberg software, because at the moment, the Mac with the Unicorn software doesn't record all the midi channels simultaneously - it records them one at a time. The Synth-Axe puts out information on all six midi channels simultaneously, so you would have to play one string at a time, and that would be a total pain in the ass. (Laughs)
BSR: Do you have plans that would incorporate video?
AH: I try, and I would like to, but it's a record company function. Unless you have money to do it yourself, it is very difficult. I'm trying to get the record company to do a video of "MacMan." I think it could be something that could be animated very well. It's the kind of track that you could do a lot of things with. I could imagine starting out with some computer nerd in a laboratory and then have different shots of the Synth-Axe. It could make quite an interesting video. again, if the record company doesn't think it's worth it, it will never happen. I don't have enough money to make a video. It is difficult.
BSR: How do you write music?
AH: I’ll sit down with the intention of writing something. I usually leave it to the last minute and go, "Oh shit, we have an album to do in six weeks, I better write some music." (Laughs) So I just sit down and start writing music. I have to force myself into it. Every now and again I’ll come up with something, but I never come up with anything while I'm on the road, there are too many distractions. That's why I'm anxious to get off the road, because we’ve been on the road for a while now. We were in Europe for two months, England for a month, and then we did a month here. Now we're going to L.A. for a couple of weeks. So it's over five months. Everything is in limbo. I don't feel like l make any progress unless I am at home, working. You can make progress in certain aspects of your playing, on the road, but other aspects go out the window, like writing. I want to get out of that, and I want to go home.
BSR: Is playing live satisfying for you?
AH: Yeah, I like to play live because I like to play. If I could make a living just playing in the studio, I would probably do that, but then you get fed up and you want to go out and play for people.
BSR: Is there any advice you would give to young, aspiring musicians?
AH: Do whatever you think you need to do. If you're in music to make money, try and make money, if you want to be in music to make music, make music. It doesn't seem to work if you mix them. You get guys who set out deliberately to do one sort of thing, but sometimes it's hard. I just did it by accident. I really didn't want to be a musician. The whole thing just sort of came about by accident. We don't make very much progress over the years, it takes a long time and we keep coming back, doing the same places. Things don't change very quickly. It gets progressively harder and harder to survive doing it. It's difficult.
BSR: Do you have a vision in your head of a perfect piece of music that you are working towards?
AH: No, as soon as I do something, I want to do something else. I just keep going forward. Like now, I want to do a solo album that is just composition, no drums or bass, just orchestral. Almost classical. I would like to do that.
BSR: Do you see yourself doing that with an orchestra or just with the SynthAxe?
AH: I would do it just with the SynthAxe. I'd have total control over it. Then I don't have to sit there with some guy who plays the violin and doesn't want to play this shit. (Laughs). Some of those guys can be a big pain, especially with different kinds of music. I always like that thing that Keith Jarrett says about classical musicians: "They are worse than the audience." I guess a lot of those guys only want to do certain things. It's like a job. They are kind of like worker bees. Their creativity must be on a different plane from a lot of jazz musicians. A lot of these guys seem to be stuck up about it, but the fact is that their creativity level isn't very high at all. It is with some people-obviously there are some wonderful musicians. Generally speaking, the guys in the band, the orchestra people, a lot of them are unhappy. That's how it seems to me. It's like they just sit there and read newspapers and play their part. To me that's not music. You have to find people who are really involved with and into it. You have to have someone there kicking their ass constantly, trying to get them to do it the way you want it, or you just do it yourself, with synthesizers, with much more control. Obviously you don't have the same sound palette that you would with a real orchestra, but eventually you might.
BSR: What was going through your head when you wrote "Pud Wud?"
AH: Pud Wud is the nickname for my little girl. The littlest one, it's just a nickname. When I was writing that particular piece, every time it got to the vamp section she would really leap into action. It was great!
BSR: Are there any people with whom you would like to collaborate in the future?
AH: There are a lot of people with whom I would like to, but I don't know if it would work out. I would like to keep working with this band as it is now and to do some more writing. I think on the next album, I will just play guitar.
Kindly supplied by Michael Reich and Doug Glener