I am very saddened by the news that guitarist ALLAN HOLDSWORTH has passed away at age 70. The British-born Holdsworth, who had lived in San Diego's North County Vista community for several decades, was easily the greatest and most original improviser I had the good and unreal fortune of seeing live. I first came across him in 1973 at a Newport Wherehouse Records, an era where the clerks were as big musician obsessives as you were. I found myself in a long and riffing conversation with a sales clerk about guitarists in general. At a point, the excited chat veered into guitarists of great speed, accuracy, and original technique. I bemoaned that the realm of the speedster had already been decimated, given the accelerated barrages fashioned by the kings of the hill at the time, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola and the abusively underrated Larry Coryell. The summary view was that younger guitarists taking up the jazz-rock tempos and scalar extemporizing had turned the style into a morass of rapid , incoherent chatter. I said something to that effect, a common move among a good many of the music snob community who'd needed to establish their bonafide when they encounter a member of the tribe they hadn't yet exchanged judgments yet; it was an affectation, and it in my case at least, was used frequently to obscure the fact that there were musicians I'd hadn't heard . So I said this, maintaining my fiction of knowing something I didn't. I kid you not, the clerk snapped his fingers and asked if I'd heard Allan Holdsworth. No, I said, and he motioned me over to the counter turntable; he took out a disc the read "Tempest" on it, eagerly but carefully slid the disc from the sleeve and dropped the needle on the disc. What followed was rather good blues-riff rock in a Cream mode, but with diminished and augmented chords placed in the fuzz-toned mix to add the surprising element of jazzy space, an element enhanced by the jazz background of drummer John Hiseman, who'd been the timekeeper and leader of the pioneer UK jazz-fusion band Colosseum. The revelation of the disc was the guitar work, which struck rapid and dynamically like a bolt of lightning.It was Holdsworth on the frets, racing over the chord changes with runs Joe Pass might have been proud to call his own, mixing up his complex outings with finely wrought blues bends and dissonant accents and bittersweet turns in his phrasing. This was 1973, Van Halen hadn't yet been formed. This was a precursor to the kind of guitar work that would become the go-to style for a hard rock lead man. Holdsworth, though, was constantly evolving, challenging himself and his technique by placing it in new contexts. He was an improviser more than anything else, a man who'd created his own idiom. His improvisations were clearly a match for Coltrane's, high velocity, register jumping runs that did strange and wonderful turns against your expectations of where you thought his ideas might take him. His technique was peerless and his playing was revolutionary. He, like the amazingly brilliant guitarist Larry Coryell who died just a couple of weeks ago, profoundly and permanently changed the way the electric guitar would be played. This man has given me a much pleasure in the decades that I've been listening to him, through his stints with Tempest, Soft Machine, Gong, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Bill Bruford, UK, Anders and Anders, Jean Luc Ponty, and his own bands and albums. For all those decades, the rest of the guitar world was catching up with what this genius was already doing with unmatched fluidity and invention.
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