Sunday, April 23, 2017

Grievous Bodily Harmonics

There's quite a few musicianly departings to catch up on, and I'm going to do most of them on their birthdays upcoming because death posts are a drag. There is one, however, from a week ago that merits immediate attention.
I know I talk a lot on this page about this guy or that gal, and how they altered the molecular structure of the music of our world with just their mere presence and their coterie of unprecedented innovations. It likely sounds like a boatload of hyperbolic drivel 99% of the time, trust me I get it.
Once in a while, though, all my extravagant exaggerations fall short of description, in the cases where the person being tributed really does deserve the most far-flung and extensive praise as the rare, true game-changer. People whose instrument was one thing before they arrived, and something entirely different -- with a whole host of new possibilities uncovered -- after their advent upon the scene.
Last weekend we lost just such a talent and just such a pioneer, of an instrument that's perhaps the most prone of all to the expression of cliché and redundant, empty pyrotechnic display. To say that the universe of the guitar was fundamentally altered by the deceased would be a categorical understatement of immeasurable proportions. Wait, what was that about hyperbole?
A perhaps startling admission: I used to not understand or really enjoy the music of Allan Holdsworth. What he was up to felt completely out of my pay grade, and all those great albums he's on before he went on his own -- those with Nucleus, Gong, Soft Machine, and Bill Bruford's late 1970s band -- always left me confused and feeling on the outside, looking in. Maybe that was the idea... I had to grow up to fully get it.
It took until 2010 and a visit to Yoshi's in Oakland for a performance of HoBoLeMa -- an all-improvised superband featuring Holdsworth, colossal drum beast Terry Bozzio, bass titan Tony Levin and percussion savant Pat Mastelotto -- for me to begin to comprehend what made and makes Allan Holdsworth one of the most important and essential axe-grinders of our lifetimes.
I got to meet him out in front of the club before the show, and the first thing I was struck by was the hands. A possessor of hands so large and fingers so spiderifically long, his reach was surely measured not in frets but in entire guitars. He seemed lost and unable to find his way to the backstage area, so I shepherded him to the event staff to get him where he needed to go.
That life-changing set got me over the Holdsworth hump -- seeing is believing, as they say -- and from that night on I transitioned from uncomprehending observer to appreciative aficionado. Of course over the course of the last 30 years I have known countless guitar players who revere the guy as an absolute deity; it just took me until age 44 and absorbing him in that context for me to catch up to the rest of the world.
I don't feel alone. No less a guitar godhead than John McLaughlin once opined that he'd be happy to steal every shred of Allan Holdsworth's technique and harmonic conception... if he could begin to figure out precisely wtf was going on in the guy's playing.
It's impossible to describe the visceral power and alien complexity -- or the insane, warp-factor speed -- of AH except to say he is like a horn player with a guitar. A really out there horn player, something like if John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders had played guitar instead of tenor saxophone. With an undecodably sophisticated approach to harmony that makes Ornette Coleman seem like the Sex Pistols.
Of all the stone cold Samurai of the six strings I can think of, this is the one with maybe the most disorienting, dervish approach and the most extraterrestrial-sounding sensibility. Worshiped by players as diverse as Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, and from Robben Ford to Vernon Reid, there's no one else I can name on the instrument that brought more expressive power and more intervallic innovation to the fretboard than this man.
Sadly he passed away from a massive heart attack last Saturday at the age of 70, but not before giving us 50 years worth of unprecedented output to chew on, both as a part of legendary groups and on his own. To commemorate this monumental player's player, I have today an NTSC DVD of a laserdisc -- remember those? -- never officially issued in the DVD era, depicting a complete performance of his I.O.U. band, captured onstage in Tokyo almost 33 years ago.
Allan Holdsworth
Yubin Chokin Hall
Tokyo, Japan

01 introduction
02 Tokyo Dream
03 Road Games
04 White Line
05 Panic Station
06 Letters of Marque
07 Devil Take the Hindmost
08 Home
09 Material Real
10 Metal Fatigue
11 Where Is One?
12 The Things You See
13 Was There (Something)

Total time: 1:21:33

Allan Holdsworth – guitar
Paul Williams – vocals
Chad Wackerman – drums
Jimmy Johnson – bass

NTSC DVD of the 1985 "Tokyo Dream" laserdisc, never officially issued on DVD
This is 80 full minutes of Allan Holdsworth doing what he did and a near-flawless example of what made him someone other guitar players looked to for leadership into the unprecedented unknown. Look out as well for Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman, who lends a distinctively muscular thump to the proceedings and an earthy grounding to AH's more wormhole-wandering and mindbending explorations.
I shall return Wednesday with a wild 40th anniversary post about yet another guitar molester, but for now I'd advise pulling this little puppy -- never issued since the days of laserdiscs and velour sweaters -- out of the cloud and familiarizing yourself with what it looks like when an unassuming, slightly frumpy looking guy sets a guitar on fire without the use of matches or gasoline... just his fleet fingers. And R.I.P. to the Maestro Allan Holdsworth, who perhaps did more to redefine the instrument than anyone in those same last 40 years.--J.
8.6.1946 - 4.15.2017

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