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Allan Holdsworth. End of an Era.


Robert Nye once said of Henry Miller: ‘I have never read Miller on song without feeling better, happier, more myself and less alone for having done so.’ And that’s how I feel when I hear Allan Holdsworth play guitar. Listening as I’m writing, saddened by the death of one of my musical heroes,  the music is as poetic, fresh and optimistic as it ever was.  The human condition is not always a happy one, but we have art, and Allan Holdsworth was my kind of artist.

Like all great musicians, Allan Holdsworth didn’t just compose, perform and record music. He wrestled it, went to war with it. He argued, fell out with it, and made friends with it again. He took it to the pub for a drink then had a punch up with it outside as they were leaving. He spent his life developing an understanding of it, negotiating with it, and reaching an agreement.

More Miles Davis than Jimmy Hendrix. Much more a Coltrane than a Clapton. A deep musical thinker. Like the great Bebop artists of the fifties and sixties, he was always searching, constantly in flux. The endless need to change. The dissatisfaction, the desire to refine and discover and to remain always a student, never a master. To seek out the heightened tensions, unheard progressions and to play the unexpected. To develop an understanding of space. To know that the rests are as important as the notes.

But his search for greater theoretical understanding was always with the art in mind. Mining the theory in the hope of finding the keys to unlocking greater lyricism, romance and beauty. Not an end in itself. He went in search of the lost chord and found millions of them.

The technique, or course, was dazzling. For my part, I had no real interest in it. I never wanted to be a guitarist. Whilst impressive to watch, I think on the five or six occasions I attended Allan Holdsworth shows I think I probably had my eyes closed for most of the time. The music was what mattered.

We’ll never see or hear another Allan Holdsworth. He was unique. But as I write this I worry that the age and attitudes that allowed him and his music to be heard and appreciated, may be over. I fear the age when the music was all that mattered has passed. No distractions, no compromises. If only today’s generation of ‘artists’ spent as much time developing their musical chops as they do espousing political beliefs and honing their visual image, music might be better for it.

If you’re not familiar with Allan’s music, I would recommend seeking out a much of it as you can. He recorded eleven (depending whether you count his ‘unofficial’ first Velvet Darkness) studio albums fronting his own band. They are all great. My favourites would be Road Games, Metal Fatigue and Wardencliffe Tower. He appeared on countless albums as a member of groups and as a guest soloist. It is all magical. Groups such as seventies jazz/prog/rock outfits such as Bruford, Soft Machine, UK and Gong (click the links for some YouTube examples, but these records really need to be experienced as a whole), and guesting on albums by Jon St James, Andrea Marcelli and Stanley Clarke to name but some.

I’ll finish with a link to some more music. A track called Final Project from the drummer/percussionist Andrea Marcelli’s 1990 album Silent Will. One of my favourite Allan Holdsworth performances. At precisely 3.27 the door to a higher dimension opens and I’m sure I can hear an angel sighing……..

To mis-quote Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘without the music of Allan Holdsworth, life would be a mistake.’

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