Sunday, May 28, 2017

Prelude: Formative Years with Debussy and Coltrane

Allan at age 5 with a turntable constructed by his father. (Sam Holdsworth)
     Born August 6, 1946 in the textile/mill town of Bradford in West Yorkshire (northern England), Allan Holdsworth developed an early fascination with music when he noticed the emotional effect that certain records (Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune", in particular) had upon him.

Clair de Lune (1890), performed by the Composer

     Allan's evident passion for music inspired his father Sam (actually his grandfather, as Allan never knew his biological father) to give his young 5-year old ward a record player (which he built out of a hand-powered turntable - see top).  At this point, Allan had no interest in playing an instrument, but he was exposed to a generous cross-section of jazz and classical music, due to the fact that the senior Sam was a performing jazz pianist (though not a particularly successful one). For example, Allan has cited being influenced in his youth by classical composers such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Chopin, Bela Bartok, and Igor Stravinsky:
     "The thing that always moved me most was hearing a really great chord, or just the way it was voiced. That's what I live for, that chord. It came mostly from classical music in the beginning. I got interested in certain composers - Bartok, the String Quartets, and then the "Concerto for Orchestra", and I also liked some of that opera, like "The Miraculous Mandarin". Oh, and Debussy and Ravel - I love Ravel's String Quartet. There's something about that period. Music was just starting to look like scenery; you could see things in the music."  (34)

Ravel's String Quartet in F Major (1903), performed by the Alban Berg Quartet

     From the jazz world, Allan was also being exposed to popular artists such as Bix Biederbecke, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith and Oliver Nelson.  As far as guitarists, Allan's father's collection included records featuring Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass (for ex. "Catch Me"), Wes Montgomery ("Missile Blues"), Jimmy Raney ("Jimmy Raney in Three Attitudes", esp. "So In Love"), Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, etc...

Jimmy Raney: So In Love (1956)

     Allan relates that around the age of 15 he became curious about learning to play the saxophone, but due to the high expense of such an instrument, his father instead bought him an acoustic "Spanish" guitar off of his uncle. (Note: Allan's sister Debbie recalls that this first guitar was in fact, his birth mother Vera's, and that Vera was actually somewhat peeved by this slight bit of confusion in Allan's early interviews.)
     "Dad got a guitar from him (his uncle) and just left it lying around. I just started in front of the mirror!  I just noodled on it from time to time. I'd try it on while listening to music, but still having no real desire to play anything. I guess over a period of time I realized I was playing a few chords on it, and my Dad sort of took over, because he knew all the notes on the guitar, being the musician that he was…but I was very stubborn. I didn’t really like the help, though I needed it - but I wanted to do it on my own (rolls eyes). (33)
     Allan's father was not a guitarist, and so could only teach Allan guitar chords from playing notes on the piano.  In other words, the pitches of Sam's piano chords were presented and then fingered on the guitar, and this unconventional method of identifying chord shapes on the guitar fretboard is what helped trigger Allan's individual and distinctive chordal style.
     "Well my only teacher I ever had was my Dad, and he played the piano, so whenever he played chords they’d always be voiced differently than the guitar – even tho later on he himself became a pretty good guitar player, he could play beautiful chord things on the guitar – he didn’t have a lot of chops, but it didn’t matter, he had a lot of harmonic chops, which is better, actually. So a lot of the chords that he showed me had kind of like close voicings so I just grew up with that, so that was normal for me. I never learned the normal, you know, little short, "bunched up" chords really - they were always a little bit more "extended"…I was ignorant to the fact that I was doing anything that was any different from anybody else..." (66)
     "(So) I started experimenting... taking a triad and going through all the inversions I could get on the lower three strings. Then I'd do the same on the next three, then take a four note chord and do the same... and so on. Then I'd write them all out, find the ones I liked and discard the ones I didn't." (29)
(undated photo from "Sand" liner notes)
     In a recent podcast interview with Eric Miller, drummer Chad Wackerman makes some interesting observations relevant to this unusual learning regimen: "(Allan) decided not to strum, I think, early on - he liked to hear all the notes like a keyboard - like all the notes of a chord in one hit, rather than the low E string up to the high.  So he never got that 'sweeping' kind of sound."  - Pods and Sods Podcast by Eric Miller, 2017

     (Interestingly enough, Sam Holdsworth went on to become a local guitar teacher, and even authored a guitar theory book, eventually published in 1997 under Allan's name and titled "Melody Chords For Guitar".)

     During the latter half of the 1960s, after having graduated to an electric f-hole "cello guitar" (an acoustic Hofner President arch-top fitted with a pick-up), Allan began playing in "workingmen's clubs" with local skiffle and pop bands (such as "Jimmy Judge and the Jurymen", "Margie and the Sundowners", etc. ).  This lasted a few years, during which time he eventually obtained his first "proper" guitar, a blue Fender Stratocaster.  Also, in tandem with the "beat" music of the day, Allan continued to explore more complex music on his own.  For example:
     "I learned a few Charlie Christian solos from (Benny Goodman) albums that he was on, but I realized that I wasn’t really learning anything from copying anybody.  I realized I needed to figure out what they were thinking, or how they were going about it.  That was more important than what they actually played (from the copying point of view). For example, if I was to do two solos for the same piece, I realized that when I played the one I’d copied, then that was fine, but when it came time to do my own, it was "nowhere", so I realized early in the beginning that I needed to find out a way to use whatever I had to play the kind of music that I wanted to play, and I've been struggling with it ever since..." (33)
Charlie Christian with Bennie Goodman (1939)

     In the beginning of 1967, Allan began zeroing in on the saxophone of John Coltrane.  Allan's first exposure to Coltrane was apparently through Trane's sessions with Miles Davis, but it wasn't until Allan heard "Coltrane's Sound" that he truly fell in love with the tenor player's "sheets of sound" explorations.
     "And then the next big major thing was John Coltrane, because my father had those records that had Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane in the same band. The thing about that was, I loved Cannonball Adderley, but I could hear where it came from, I could hear the connection between him and what was before - but when I heard John Coltrane, I couldn’t – somehow he’d been able to take this cable of life or cable of music and plug it directly into the source, and it wasn’t going through any pathway that had already been recreated - it like was a new circuit… I was just really moved by it and I used to go out every Saturday morning and buy all the John Coltrane records I could find...He was a brilliant musician – if you listen to some of those things like, I think, my favorite album, Coltrane’s Sound, and there’s a tune on there called Satellite - and I listened to that just a couple of days ago and it’s unbelievable, man it’s absolutely astounding – it’s amazing! And it never happened before – isn’t that great?" (48)

     "He was spiritually connected to some pipeline where he could bypass all the stuff you had to go thru a thousand times to get to what you really wanted to say. I think that was the biggest thing that I learned from that---that there were other ways of doing and playing things. It gave me freedom to do things that you hadn’t really heard before…you know it didn’t have to be "diatonically correct" or whatever if it’s working. So it was that freedom to not have to make it sound like something you’ve heard already." (63)
"Satellite" from 'Coltrane's Sound' (1960)
with John Coltrane (ts), Steve Davis (b) and Elvin Jones (d)

Next: 'Igginbottom and Ronnie Scott

The numbers in parentheses after Allan's quotes refer to the sources listed in the Bibliography.  
For more detailed information on this chapter, see the Annotated Chronology.


  1. Nice job!! it helps to understand a little bit more of our Guru! Many thnaks

  2. I look forward to more.....

  3. Great work man, have always wanted to do a properly comprehensive allan bio like this but it seems like you've covered everything here! Looking forward to more

  4. superb, so great to have the pieces of music to refer to. I have read a lot of this stuff in the past but never checked it out at the time. I will defo be following this insightful blog, many thanks, Jon Hepworth (from FB Unreal group)