Guitar virtuoso Allan Holdsworth is the latest jazz luminary to pass away. It is interesting to meditate on what made him different.
Perhaps the first point is that he was an exceptional improvising musician first and guitarist second. Inspired by the playing of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, Holdsworth initially wanted to play the saxophone and he was able to acquire some of the characteristics of wind playing – at times one could almost hear the pausing for breath.
Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)
Tenor saxophonist Coltrane described his frenzied blizzard of scales as “sheets of sound”. Holdsworth was the guitarist who perhaps came closest to achieving an equivalent of that frenzy. That he did so on a fret board was no small achievement. Indeed, it was his understanding of the guitar’s mechanics that was especially remarkable. Fellow Yorkshireman, and another world famous jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin, once quipped that he would love to emulate what Holdsworth was doing – except that he had no idea what it was.
The guitar presents some unique technical challenges. Like the piano, it is a chord instrument. But unlike the piano, the same note can be fingered in a number of different ways.
This presents daunting mechanical issues when improvising at great speed; learning improvisation for guitar involves as much an understanding of mathematical combinations as of harmony or musical effect.
Jazz guitarists are endlessly examining the different ways that they can play scales or explore the same types of harmonies. As a result, most sound like they are, at least to some extent, trapped by the complexity of the fret board, wrestling with too many possibilities.
It is common for them to develop patterns, or melodic fragments (licks) as the basis of their musical vocabulary – patterns derived from the shapes on the fret board.
But not Holdsworth. He rarely played anything that sounded like a “lick”, and he was constantly exploring different ways to get beyond a composition’s harmony and key. Like Coltrane, he spent an inordinate amount of time studying scales, intervals and chords to find a meta-system that would allow him to reach far beyond the harmony of the piece he was playing.
It was exceptionally technically advanced playing and it has not been equalled. Partly because of his enormous finger span, Holdsworth was able to execute almost anything he wanted, without regard for the limitations of the instrument. Very few jazz guitarists could claim that.
His touch was also outstanding; he could move easily between glissando to percussive attack, sometimes in the same phrase.
The genre in which Holdsworth made his name was jazz fusion, which is based on extreme levels of complexity: fast changing, complex rhythms and lightning fast soloing on a rhythm section cushion that has open, loosely defined, harmonies. This enables the soloist to move wherever they want without clashing with the backing.
It was an aesthetic of musical excess, and inevitably it exhausted itself. There is only so much complexity audiences can listen to without becoming sated. Now, the fusion jazz of the 1970s sounds dated, despite its undoubted virtuosity.
Holdsworth’s playing had an obsessive quality and it is little surprise to hear that there was an element of monomania in his behaviour. Legend has it that one night he hid away in a cupboard, so disappointed was he with his playing.
It is also less than surprising to learn that he died in penury; his children had to crowd-fund his funeral (it was heavily over subscribed when his fans pitched in). He was always philosophical about the limits of his appeal. He knew that the greatest interest came from fellow jazz musicians intrigued by what he was doing.
A body of work such as this ultimately raises an interesting question about music that is so technically advanced. Is it good because it is so advanced, or is it in the end limited because there is too much focus on technique and not enough on what will appeal to a wider audience?
John Coltrane may have been the most influential of all saxophonists and a lasting influence on all that has since happened in jazz; but did that make what he did superior in itself?
That was the question always posed by Holdsworth’s playing, which was neither easy nor accessible. Whatever the answer, for jazz guitarists, Holdsworth represented something very rare: he never let the instrument defeat him.