Never mind what you've been told by the hagiographers of more famous six-stringers -- the contest for "greatest living British guitarist" is between John McLaughlin (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Allan Holdsworth (Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime [as McLaughlin's replacement], U.K., Gong), and Holdsworth is my choice. That so much of his solo catalog (around twenty albums) has been hard to find in the U.S. has not helped his case here. Both of these reissues are important albums, for somewhat different reasons.
After a period where Holdsworth's albums had been pure products of the studio, with him laying down the guitar tracks (often guitar synthesizer) and having sessionmen overdub later, 1993's Hard Hat Area put an excellent band -- keyboardist Steve Hunt, bass guitarist Skuli Sverrisson, and drummer Gary Husband -- in the studio with him, interacting in the moment and even creating the closing track collaboratively. Although Holdsworth's SynthAxe is heard on a few tracks, he mostly sticks to regular electric guitar, leaving Hunt to lay down most of the cool synth backing. This is generally flashy but melodic fusion that leans strongly towards prog-rock, with Holdsworth's smoothly frenetic fingerwork unreeling the distinctive lines that dazzle guitar cognoscenti as he spirals upwards to feverish climaxes, contrasted with some beautiful moments of calm. The slower and quieter pieces have the more memorable themes, with the uptempo tracks basically springboards for Holdsworth's fast fingers, but even on the ballads he displays his chops. Chops without taste are exciting even if superficial, but with taste, as in Holdsworth's case, they are both thrilling and deeply satisfying.
None Too Soon, his next studio album (1996), found him returning to SynthAxe a bit more often but moving in a very new direction with an album of mostly jazz covers: Coltrane's "Countdown," Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," Joe Henderson's "Isotope" and "Inner Urge," Bill Evans's "Very Early," and Irving Berlin's standard "How Deep Is the Ocean?" The exceptions are a cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and two pieces by his friend Gordon Beck. The late Beck was integral to this project: He suggested the covers idea, picked the repertoire, and was a highly talented post-bebop pianist (when using a digital piano, and at a less frenzied pace, his playing sometimes recalls that of Herbie Hancock). The rest of the rhythm section's pretty hot too: bassist Gary Willis and drummer Kirk Covington, both of American neo-fusioneers Tribal Tech; each gets some rewarding time in the spotlight. As Holdsworth in later years immersed himself in '60s jazz, he'd get a little closer stylistically to its original sound, but here he's still basically a hotshot fusion guitarist attacking these pieces as if they were new and modern; purists will be particularly aghast at what he does on "Nuages," perhaps especially because it's the only one of the jazz pieces originally played on guitar, and by one of the gods of jazz guitar, at that. For that matter, the way these guys play the Berlin tune, uptempo, with Holdsworth shredding for all he's worth and even Beck going nuts, it's also drastically transformed. The major disappointment is "Inner Urge," which pales in comparison to the vastly more intense Henderson renditions. Holdsworth has gotten much better at handling jazz repertoire in the intervening years, so I'd love to hear what he makes of "Inner Urge" nowadays, but that one disappointment aside, it's interesting to hear his first steps down that path. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.