For almost 50 years Allan Holdsworth has been at the cutting edge of guitar craft, boldly going where no player has gone before with a jaw-dropping fluidity of style that continues to influence generations of players. He has been referred to as the “John Coltrane of guitar”, a man who ironically Holdsworth cites as an influence.
As a kid growing up in post-war Yorkshire, Allan wanted to play saxophone but they were expensive and he ended up with a guitar, an instrument that, at the time, he “really wasn’t that interested in”! Luckily for us he persevered, his interest in the sax influencing his technique, and after spells with a multitude of bands through the ’70s, including Soft Machine, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong and Jean-Luc Ponty, he joined Bill Bruford’s band, the two of them moving on to the original line-up of U.K. before Allan started a solo career in 1979. In the ’80s his attention turned to the SynthAxe synthesizer controller, an instrument that greatly influenced his music from that point.
In recognition of his contribution over the decades, April sees the release of a 12-CD box set of his solo releases from 1982 to 2003 (remastered versions of all 11 solo albums plus the 1990 live album Then!, some with additional tracks), quite correctly entitled The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever (although this apparently embarrasses the humble Holdsworth). Issued alongside it is this double CD 28-track ‘Best Of’, selected by Allan himself, that distils the essence of what makes him the instrumental deity that he has become. [As an aside, Velvet Darkness from 1976 is not included amongst these reissues, recorded during rehearsal and released by the producer without consent Holdsworth does not consider it a part of is discography.]
Laid out in near reverse chronological order, the set starts with three tracks from the 2000 album, Sixteen Men of Tain, a return to the trio format of his earliest solo work, and what a selection of high energy jazz fusion pieces they are, Holdsworth’s divine chording characterising that album’s title track, vicious soloing in tandem with Gary Novak on the guitar/drums duet The Drums Were Yellow and the title piece for this collection rich with SynthAxe.
The dexterity of the man is nothing short of extraordinary and the way he holds his playing together within the pieces, despite the almost to be expected but always avoided car-crash of broken fingers, is completely compelling, as I witnessed at a sweaty show Allan gave in Cardiff in 2010. His playing is nothing short of magnificent and he is certainly very highly placed amongst my all-time favourite guitarist.
His playing is sometimes considered alongside the ‘shredders’, but this is wildly inaccurate; evidence to the contrary being provided by the two tracks from None Too Soon‘s (1996) venture into jazzier circles, unsurprising as it is a selection of standards with Irving Berlin and Django Reinhardt being represented here, including some fantastic piano from Gordon Beck. There is intent, purpose and melody by the bucket load in Holdsworth’s music, mind-melting technique oozing out of every pore, but not for any self-serving reason, Allan is a consummate player and composer finding true musical outlets for his immense talent.
Hard Hat Area‘s (1993) three tracks move into muscular fusion on Ruhkukah with incendiary ensemble performances from all involved, the band allowed to stretch out on the lengthy Low Levels, High Stakes. Holdsworth’s choices of sidemen are as precise as his technique and they all deliver in whatever setting he requires. The choices from Wardencliffe Tower (1992) are more introspective, again featuring his regular instruments of choice on different tracks, plus the stately Baritone guitar that colours Sphere of Innocence, and one of the few appearances of vocals here, from Naomi Star on Against the Clock.
A trio from Secrets (1989), all guitar with no SynthAxe, Allan’s thick Yorkshire briefly heard at the start of Peril Premonition, are split by a vocal version of Road Games, featuring Jack Bruce no less, which closes Disc 1. The guitar sings throughout, and when his fingers are warmed up the cascades of notes come at you at an otherworldly pace. It’s as if he falls into a trance, hands perfectly replicating the thoughts and images in his head.
Sand (1987) is up next, the beautiful Distance vs. Desire a solo piece that shows what the SynthAxe can do, followed by one of Allan’s favourites, the incendiary Pud Wud in quartet format, much of the same line-up appearing on Atavachron (1986), the first album to feature SynthAxe, although the dreamy Funnels is all guitar with some lovely keyboard from Billy Childs. The audacious Metal Fatigue (1985) sees a tongue-in-cheek take on metal stylings during the intro to the title track, at odds with the lyrical verses with Paul Williams’ vocals, plus Home with a rare acoustic guitar section.
Road Games (1983) appears again with two tracks in a trio format with Chad Wackerman and Jeff Berlin, the latter’s awesome bass solo on Water On The Brain, Pt.II a wonderful thing. The trio format continues through Holdsworth’s debut I.O.U. (1982) with Paul Carmichael and Gary Husband, who gets a solo spot on Letters of Marque, the collection ending with a nostalgic The 4.15 Bradford Executive from Sand, no doubt named for a titled train service that Holdsworth would have been familiar with in the ’60s, followed by an individual SynthAxe piece from Allan’s latest solo release to date, Flat Tire from 2001. Apparently a new studio release is currently in the works. It’s been too long.
The package is very nicely put together with some good photos and an in depth essay by Chris Hoard based on an interview with Holdsworth. If you love Holdsworth’s solo work then this is a fantastic overview, but it is also the perfect place to start if you are new to the man and his genius.
01. Sixteen Men of Tain (6:24)
02. The Drums Were Yellow (5:25)
03. Eidolon (4:35)
04. How Deep Is the Ocean (5:29)
05. Nuages (5:41)
06. Ruhkukah (5:33)
07. Low Levels, High Stakes (9:03)
08. Tullio (6:01)
09. Sphere of Innocence (5:59)
10. Dodgy Boat (5:36)
11. Against the Clock (4:57)
12. City Nights (2:34)
13. 54 Duncan Terrace (4:34)
14. Road Games (Jack Bruce) (4:12)
Time – 76:03
01. Peril Premonition (4:44)
02. Distance Vs. Desire (5:18)
03. Pud Wud (6:43)
04. Non-Brewed Condiment (3:43)
05. Funnels (6:14)
06. Metal Fatigue (4:57)
07. Home (5:33)
08. Devil Take the Hindmost (5:38)
09. Tokyo Dream (5:04)
10. Water on the Brain-Pt II (2:46)
11. Letters of Marque (7:00)
12. Temporary Fault (3:18)
13. The 4.15 Bradford Executive (8:29)
14. Curves (5:31)
Time – 74:58
Total Time – 151:01
Allan Holdsworth – Guitar, SynthAxe, Baritone Guitar (track 1:9), Acoustic Guitar (track 2:7)
Gary Novack – Drums (tracks 1:1-3)
Dave Carpenter – Bass (tracks 1:1 & 3)
Gordon Beck – Digital Piano & Keyboards (tracks 1:4 & 5)
Gary Willis – Bass (tracks 1:4 & 5)
Kirk Covington – Drums (tracks 1:4 & 5)
Steve Hunt – Keyboards (tracks 1:6-11)
Gary Husband – Drums (tracks 1:1-10, 2:3-5,11-12), Keyboards (1:12)
Skúli Sverrisson – Bass (tracks 1:6-8)
Jimmy Johnson – Bass (tracks 1:9-13, 2:3-8,13)
Naomi Star – Vocals (track 1:11)
Vinnie Colaiuta – Drums (tracks 1:11-13)
Alan Pasqua – Acoustic Piano (tracks 1:13, 2:3)
Jeff Berlin – Bass (tracks 1:14, 2:9 & 10)
Chad Wackerman – Drums (tracks (1:14, 2:1,6-10,13)
Jack Bruce – Vocals (track 1:14)
Bob Wackerman – Bass (track 2:1)
Clair Holdsworth – Voice (track 2:1)
Jeffrey Ocheltree – Hammer (track 2:1)
Billy Childs – Keyboards (track 2:5)
Paul Williams – Vocals (tracks 2:6 & 7)
Paul Carmichael – Bass (tracks 2:11 & 12)
Record Label: Manifesto Records
Catalogue#: MFO 46501
Date of Release: 7th April 2017