Interviewed in 2014 by premierguitar.com, one of the pre-eminent guitar enthusiast websites, Animals as Leaders guitarist Tosin Abasi talked about “Ka$cade,” one of the cuts from the band’s then-new long player The Joy of Motion, referencing Allan Holdsworth, one his prime fretboard influences.
“He’s an example of someone who has such a distinct voice that you can’t come anywhere close to what he’s doing without being really obvious about who you’re taking it from.”
It’s no secret that guitarists, especially those who look outward in search of whiplash-inducing technique, borrow from and pay homage to their influences. But Abasi’s comment reveals, if somewhat obliquely, the uniquely compelling presence that Holdsworth held for progressive guitarists.
The fact is that Holdsworth, who passed from this mortal coil unexpectedly in mid-April at age 70, would probably not have summoned a guitar influence as clearly as Abasi could. Holdsworth said in many interviews that, as a young teen in his native Bradford, England, that he really didn’t want to be a guitar player. His exposure to jazz music, which came via his jazz-loving pianist dad, ignited a musical inspiration around the reed players, notably Coltrane. Anyone who listens to Holdsworth’s playing and knows anything about what Coltrane was doing would find this unsurprising — Coltrane’s furious modal inventions, his innate ability to deconstruct and re-assemble melodic statements, his use of overtones — are deeply ingrained in Holdsworth’s interval-stretching soloing, his interval-jumping gallops and tortured scalar wanderlust.
In a simpler context, Holdsworth was a guitarist’s guitarist, dropping jaws the likes of Steve Morse, Eddie Van Halen (who some have speculated lifted Holdsworth’s fretboard tapping technique) and others. In this world, though, you can’t eat accolades.
In the wake of his unexpected death, a GoFundMe account was set up by a close family friend to cover his funeral expenses, as Holdsworth was essentially broke at the time of his death, trying to finish up two solo albums that, truth be told, would likely not have improved his financial situation much. Electric fusion guitar records don’t make anyone rich. They would probably have been magnificent, and some of that music may still come to light — the GoFundMe (now closed) aimed to raise $20,000 — it topped more than $114,000 when Holdsworth’s family requested that it be closed. Some of that may help finish up Holdsworth’s works in progress.
The bizarre and slightly heartbreaking online spectacle of hundreds of guitar players and fusion enthusiasts donating a Hamilton or two to cover funeral expenses for “the greatest guitar player of all time,” as more than a few commented, seemed to make his passing all the more bitter. Seventy years on the planet doesn’t seem enough for genius.
(Coltrane, of course, only got 40.)
That Holdsworth was associated with fusion jazz, that oft-maligned marriage of rock dynamics and amplification with the improvisational loft of jazz, was both his blessing and his curse. Associated as he was with the likes of Tony Williams, Jean-Luc Ponty, Gong, Pierre Moerlen and progger-turned-fusioneer Bill Bruford in the late ’70s, his appearance on a bigger star’s record lent an aura of sophistication and harmonic maturity to what could have otherwise been another sterile solo-fest. But like many other instrumentalists of that era, his subsequent solo records were relatively modestly received. (Although Metal Fatigue is considered an essential component of the fusion guitar canon.) A few ill-advised record deals, a diminishing audience and the fickle fortune of industry dollar-chasing relegated Holdsworth to the status of an enthusiast’s icon. Eddie and Eric and their like went on to play stadiums — Holdsworth to play clubs.
But as Animals as Leaders comes to town, fronted by arguably the most inventive and technically superhuman guitarist kicking dust in Tosin Abasi, the strains of Holdsworth’s otherworldly harmonic voice and his blistering technique will ring clearly for those ready to hear it. Abasi, of course, should be taken on his own terms, and some of his own musical constructions, fleeting and sometimes buried by the intensity of AaL’s pitiless attack, extend well beyond what Holdsworth was doing 40 years ago. But the DNA is unmistakable.
And for all the dismissive obituaries written about the great fusion movement of the ’70s, much of which dissolved into various forms of lite jazz, straight-ahead trios and world music in subsequent years, the spirit and combustion of Holdsworth and his peers (if you concede he had any, and plenty of guitarists insist he didn’t) continues in the prog-metal scene. There isn’t a top-caliber guitarist alive today who doesn’t know Holdsworth’s name.
Somewhere, Trane smiles.
On the Bill: Animals as Leaders. 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 3, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., 303-447-0095. Tickets are $26. This event is all ages