Archive for an appreciation

pat dinizio, 1955-2017

Pat DiNizio.

The Smithereens always relished being a band of splendid essentials, embracing a love of pop songcraft while remaining very much a rock unit.

That’s why their best known songs – “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You” and the signature hit “Behind the Wall of Sleep” – were built around that most pivotal of rock ‘n’ roll components, the mighty guitar hook. From there, the band drew upon pop blueprints from the 1960s (the Beatles, the Byrds and the Kinks were the most detectable influences) but there was also a mildly dark cast, a studied distance, within the singing of frontman Pat DiNizio. It was as though he was the stern but very loving guardian of a pop tradition encompassing styles and sounds that would bounce about in Smithereens songs.

You could spot one of their tunes in a heartbeat by the hooks, by the vocal solemnity and by the tight-as-a-drum rhythmic drive.

The Smithereens never claimed to be the most innovative band to hit the stage. The guys stuck to basics and knew the structure of an elemental pop-informed rock ‘n’ roll tune inside and out. They could also deliver the goods earnestly, without frills, in performance. The band’s cover of the 1966 Outsiders hit “Time Won’t Let Me” was always a favorite. It revealed everything that made their original compositions so much fun: great hooks, great melodic structure and an unwavering rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

The news arrived this morning that DiNizio had died at age 62. With many focused on results of the highly publicized special election for an open Senate seat in Alabama, his passing was easy to overlook. But then, so were the Smithereens. For over three decades, they were as unfashionable and they were reliable. Trends came and went, but the Smithereens, resistent to change, proudly rocked on.

“In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year,” DiNizio told me in an interview prior to the band’s 2014 performance at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. “That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we’re all on the same page.”

tom petty, 1950-2107

tom petty.

Yesterday afternoon I came across a Facebook post from a friend in deep and understandable distress concerning not only the horrible shooting deaths of nearly 60 people Sunday night in Las Vegas but the ongoing divide within our country that remains a backdrop of such tragedy. The posting came with a simple plea: “Please, someone, give me some good news.”

No sooner than I finished reading that than three successive emails arrived, all concerning Tom Petty. Found unconscious at his home. Not breathing. No brain activity. His death, at age 66, was confirmed this morning.

We won’t try to equate the passing of an American rock ‘n’ roll colossus with what happened in Las Vegas. This isn’t a contest, just a sad footnote to an indescribably sad day.

The most immediate reaction to Petty’s death is simply shock. He had completed what was widely regarded as his final major tour as recently as last week (a trek that took him to Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena in June). You simply don’t expect an artist with such seeming invincibility to simply exit so suddenly. But when do such departures ever really announce themselves?

The overriding sense of loss, though, comes from the fact that Petty was part of a very small circle of American rock stylists whose music came of age in the 1970s by embracing essentials – a sense of rock ‘n’ roll vitality that largely sidestepped trends, a songwriting ability that embodied an everyman stance without unduly flaunting it and, let’s face it, enough of a celebrity profile to win him the kind of commercial appeal to fortify an enduring audience. It’s a short a list. Bruce Springsteen is on it. Bob Seger, despite a career that began to catch fire in the late ‘60s, is on it. The company thins out pretty quickly after that.

Petty came to us at the unlikeliest of times. A Floridian who made his fortune after relocating to Southern California, he released three initial albums with his Heartbreakers band – “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976), “You’re Gonna Get It” (1978) and the breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979) – at a time when rock and pop were split between mainstream disco and upstart punk. Petty avoided the extremes of both by embracing a meat-and-potatoes rock design that sounded more Heartland than West Coast in terms of inspiration. The backbone of his enduring catalog – “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee” and others – hails from those first three albums.

Petty also accomplished something few artists outside of Springsteen and Seger could. He rode new waves of popularity in ensuing decades.

“Full Moon Fever” – technically a solo album, but with a Jeff Lynne-produced sound largely in league with the Heartbreakers’ music – yielded the defiant hit “I Won’t Back Down” as the 1980s closed to become as popular as anything Petty cut during the preceding decade. Then in 1994 came “Wildflowers,” another record with another famed producer (Rick Rubin) that stripped away the Lynne-enhanced pop-veneer for some of Petty’s most elemental and endearing songs.

There weren’t many hits after that, but there didn’t need to be. Petty never made a bad album. Even his last two Heartbreakers works, “Mojo” (2010) and “Hypnotic Eye” (2014) possessed great songs even if their more relaxed feel provided Petty an elder status he largely shrugged off in performance. But those records are great listens and serve as proof of Petty’s ability to age with grace and vigor.

I saw him perform probably a half dozen times, none of them recently. Nothing compared to my first Petty show, however – a February 1983 outing at Louisville Gardens with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack playing together as an opening act, all for $10.

Petty’s hit at the time was the synth-heavy “You Got Lucky.” But it was another then-new tune that defined the evening – a stubbornly assertive and anthemic non-hit called “One Story Town.” The reason was simple. It embraced fully the band that pervaded every corner of Petty’s music, right down to his singing – The Byrds.

Just thinking of that song puts a smile my face. Then again, that’s what great rock ‘n’ roll does – it makes your spirits soar, even at the saddest of times.

troy gentry, 1967-2007

montgomery gentry in 2014: eddie montgomery (left) and troy gentry.

You can rewind and review his career. You can reminisce about his formative years, the pre-celebrity era, spent in Lexington. You can even admire the combination of performance stamina and mainstream popularity that kept the band that bore his name popular for close to two decades. But when the parting is so sudden and tragic, the impact of the exit winds up being what – for the moment, at least – sticks with you.

That was the feeling that hit when I got a call late yesterday afternoon that started with the three words you don’t want to hear in lieu of hello.

“Have you heard…”

That’s when the news began to quickly spread about the New Jersey helicopter crash that took the life of Troy Gentry, the Lexington born half of Montgomery Gentry. Gentry had long ago relocated to Nashville, but for most any Lexington country music fan, he will always be a local hero. It was here that he played weekends at the Austin City Saloon with siblings John Michael and Eddie Montgomery. When John Michael’s career took off in the early 1990s, Gentry reteamed with Eddie and forged a duo act through steady gigging at the Tates Creek Centre nightspot known as The Grapevine. By 1998, Montgomery Gentry was formed, signed and on its way to stardom.

At the height of the duo’s commercial popularity, around the time its third and fourth albums – 2002’s “My Town” and 2004’s “You Do Your Thing” – were nearing platinum status, Montgomery Gentry became a regular at Rupp Arena. One could only imagine the sense of accomplishment that must have come from singing the hit title tune to “My Town” in the big house of their hometown first at a show opener for Kenny Chesney and then as headliner for several New Year’s Eve performances.

Blending Southern rock inspiration with ample country bravado, Montgomery Gentry relished its role as a leading Central Kentuckv voice for contemporary country music. While the hits began to get sparser in recent years and the returns to their hometown became less frequent, the two never lost their popularity as a national touring act or as a local success saga.

“Playing the clubs then, you had The Greg Austin Band, Doug Breeding, Larry Redmon,” Gentry said told me in a 2014 interview of his early club dates with the Montgomery brothers. “Lexington was booming with live music. On the weekends you weren’t working or in between breaks on nights that you were, you would try and zip over to one of the other clubs and check out some of the other music.

“Then John Michael was discovered. But what was really fascinating was the fact that Eddie and I kept playing together. We were fortunate enough that we had something unique and different that Nashville heard about. So it’s pretty cool that we all played together in one band, split up and still make a career out of doing what we love to do.”

walter becker, 1950-2017

steely dan: donald fagen (left) and walter becker.

The rule of thumb with most great alliances is that there is usually a member of equal, if not higher ranking than the other participants known as the silent partner. The others may serve as the face of the operation, but the silent partner is often the architect, the bank roller or the engine driver. Or all three.

In the great jazz-pop enterprise known as Steely Dan, Walter Becker was the silent partner. Donald Fagen may have been the face of this popular but immensely aloof band. He served as its vocalist, keyboardist and, when the operation went live (which it didn’t for much of its lifespan), frontman. Becker would remain purposely out of the spotlight on guitar or bass knowing his contribution to the music at hand was already complete.

Becker, whose death at age 67 was announced this morning without details or fanfare on his website, was largely viewed as a 50-50 associate with Fagen in the music Steely Dan conjured. Its songs were always credited to the two players, giving the assumption that everything – the askew hipster lyrics, the generous pop slant and an even more devout jazz sensibility that increased with every album the band made between 1972 and 1980 – was a product of mutual consent. We’ll never know to what degree who designed what in the mix. Steely Dan was always as much a band of mystery as it was a purveyor of jazz-pop expression. That it ceased to be a touring quintet in the mid ‘70s and rode out the rest of the decade as a revolving studio collective of which Becker and Fagen were the chieftains only added to the mystique. But it will forever be part of Steely Dan’s fortune that Becker’s role, as deceptively passive as it might have seemed, was touted as prominently as Fagen’s. It was the essence of a classic partnership, and in the pop world, the Steely Dan alliance was as championed as they came.

I freely admit many years passed where I simply couldn’t listen to the band’s records anymore. Steely Dan had become such an overexposed fixture on rock radio (and sometimes beyond) that listener burnout had set in. But earlier this summer, for whatever reason, I dug out the seven initial records Becker and Fagen cut as Steely Dan. Their music sounded beautifully new – and, in many instances, exquisitely weird – all over again. Of course, Becker, wasn’t an obvious presence on the songs themselves. He may have contributed bass or an occasional guitar solo (or, in the case of the title tune to 1980’s “Gaucho” album, both), but his input came in the composition and arrangement process, the assimilation of all those rich jazz references (the wildly dynamic tenor sax and drum battle between Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd on “Aja,” the more tender hearted alto sax solo from Phil Woods on “Doctor Wu” and the masterfully crafted guitar solos Larry Carlton contributed to “Kid Charlemagne” and my very favorite Steely Dan work, “Third World Man”) and the often darkly opaque narratives that would have killed off any lesser pop force.

In Steely Dan, Becker was in the cockpit right alongside Fagen, flying some of the most glorious genre-bending missions the pop world has ever experienced. Happy trails, gaucho.

john abercrombie, 1944-2017

john abercrombie. photo by john rogers.

I stumbled upon the music of John Abercrombie as a high school senior near at the end of 1975. With a newly discovered fondness for jazz that was limited largely to fusion, I checked out the guitarist’s then-current debut album “Timeless” because it listed former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer as part of the trio Abercrombie fronted for the record. The music inside was, to use a tired term, mindblowing. It was jarring, it was cool. It grooved, it meditated. It rocked, it reflected. I was hooked.

But what made the catalog Abercrombie accumulated over the next 42 years with the German-rooted ECM label so striking and appealing was its diversity. Next in line, were two trio albums with Gateway – “Gateway” (1976) and “Gateway 2” (1978) – that placed Abercrombie alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette (who also played on “Timeless”) and bassist Dave Holland. The three took on everything from free-style improvs to rugged ensemble swing. Also in 1978 came the sublime “Characters,” a solo but multi-dubbed guitar album that created inner dialogues the way Bill Evans did on his groundbreaking “Conversations with Myself” albums from the 1960s.

Next up were three quartet recordings in quick succession – “Arcade” (1978), “Abercrombie Quartet” (1979) and “M” (1980) – that reunited the guitarist with the great New York pianist Richie Beirach to create an ensemble sound rich in swing, atmosphere, compositional design and brilliant but exquisitely unforced improvisation. All three were reissued early in an essential box set titled “The First Quartet” (2015).

Bookending almost all of this were two duet recordings with longtime ECM guitar mate Ralph Towner – “Sargasso Sea” (1976) and “Five Years Later” (1981) – built around acoustic/electric ambience that, in many ways, defined the mystery, mood and spaciousness of ECM music from that era.

Think of that – nine remarkable albums released in a space of roughly six years that worked as a single, extended introduction to one of the most original guitar stylists of his day. And that doesn’t even count the fine ECM records by DeJohnette, Jan Garbarek, Collin Walcott, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Liebman that featured the guitarist as a sideman.

Abercrombie, who died last night at the age of 72, never looked back after that. The following three decades brought more great bands, more splendid recordings and more stylistic possibilities, like the lusciously hushed sound he created by dispensing with guitar picks and playing largely with his thumb. That reserved but regal update was displayed on his most recent (and presumably final) album, ironically titled “Up and Coming.” I’ve reached for that record many times for weekend morning listening ever since its release last winter.

Abercrombie played Lexington only twice. Curiously, those performances were on successive years. The first was a November 1981 concert with Towner at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall, the other an October 1982 Gateway show at the Singletary Center. The former remains one of my favorite entries in UK’s longrunning Spotlight Jazz Series. I missed the Gateway set, having been assigned to cover a Kenny Rogers concert that night at Rupp Arena. We all make sacrifices.

But my favorite performance memory of Abercrombie was a November 2007 show in Knoxville. With the entire city consumed by a University of Tennessee football game the following afternoon, Abercrombie played to a small but appreciative audience with a quartet that included violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron. The delicacy and drama summoned between guitar and violin on “Vingt Six” typlified the quiet but powerfully emotive music Abercrombie dispensed with sagely eloquence late in his career.

“He plays the guitar better than ever,” wrote the late musician and author Mike Zwerin while working as a critic for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune in 1999. “But technique, speed – (they’re) not really the point any more. He’s no longer concentrating on improving what he plays. He’s after what he has not yet played. It’s about attitude.”

glen campbell, 1936-2017

A March 1970 photo of singer Glen Campbell. (AP Photo/fls).

My first lasting memory of Glen Campbell was on television. There, on Sunday evenings during the turbulent summer of 1968 where ‘The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” usually aired, was a seasonal replacement variety series called “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” It was safer than the Smothers show, to be sure, and made very sure it capitalized on the country geniality Campbell wore proudly and naturally throughout his career.

Being 10 years old, I knew nothing of the accomplishments Campbell had already chalked up – his reputation as a master guitar picker, his agility as a song interpreter and especially the unexpected roles he had already been called upon to play (like replacing a ravaged Brian Wilson on tour with the Beach Boys). What I viewed on TV was an entertainer, pure and simple.

That’s likely what most of America saw, too – an artist merging country and pop in a way no one before or, in my estimation, after, ever did. Sure, Johnny Cash took to the airwaves with a more seriously music-driven and artistically savvy TV show a year later. But Campbell was a country artist the country could bank on at a time when social and political turmoil was even more inescapable than it is now.

After a few years passed and a sense of personal appreciation for popular music heightened, Campbell’s gifts began to reveal themselves. That meant, of course, dissecting three of his most familiar hits – “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” All three were masterfully crafted, from Jimmy Webb’s compositional detail to the exquisitely orchestrated arrangements that made the songs sound cinematic to the unforced emotive vocal drama Campbell brought to the music.

For my money, Campbell only came close to rekindling the elegance of those songs once. That was with his almost conversational 1977 version of Allen Toussaint’s sublime “Southern Nights.” Toussaint made the sound like a meditation. Campbell streamlined it in a way any keen minded country artist would. I still favor Toussaint’s treatment. But Campbell’s version was inescapably accessible, plus it but a put a few well-earned royalty checks in Toussaint’s mailbox. There’s another gold star in Campbell’s favor.

I parted way with his music after that, which was when Campbell’s celebrity status became tabloid fodder. And while I can appreciate the public fight he put up against the cruelties of Alzheimer’s in his final years, I questioned the choice of family and promoters in having him perform in such an unavoidably diminished and compromised condition.

I glanced back last night at a review I wrote of Campbell’s November 2012 concert at the Opera House, when his illness was noticeably advancing. This was the opening paragraph: “A patron beside me Tuesday night as we were leaving the Opera House summed up the Glen Campbell performance that had just ended with a remark that was more like a sigh of relief than an exaltation of praise – ‘Well, that wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.’”

That wasn’t the parting shot I suspect anyone wanted. Best instead to remember Campbell for the Good Time Hours, the era when the Wichita Lineman was still very much on the line.

gregg allman, 1947-2017

gregg allman.

For all the twisted, jingoistic turns Southern rock took over the past four decades, there is no mistaking the fact the genre began with the Allman Brothers Band. And as the name so aptly inferred, that band began with two voices – the guitar lead of Duane Allman and the singing of younger sibling Gregg Allman.

Listen to the Allmans’ first three albums and you will experience a thrilling hybrid that summoned the blues, Southern R&B, a touch of organic psychedelia, jazz and gospel. Southern rock hadn’t descended into the stars-and-bars waving party parody that would eventually mesh with a highly marketable brand of commercial country music in the 1980s. It was instead a junction where the roots music innovations of the South merged. But all Southern rock – every last note, in fact – came in the wake of what the Allmans designed on 1969’s “The Allman Brothers Band,” 1970’s “Idlewild South” and 1971’s genre defining “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.”

Then, of course, the Allmans story went South in a whole different way. Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died in separate motorcycle crashes in nearly the same location, leaving only one Allman at the helm. Then stardom hit with all the excesses the ‘70s could muster. Gregg Allman soaked them all up, too. His celebrity status skyrocked even as his indulgences nearly killed him. The Allmans struggled on through breakups and reunions, bad blood and new blood. But by then, the band had largely become a mere protégé, one of many, to a music it had earlier spearheaded.

That’s not to say there weren’t fine recordings in the years to come. Both the band’s “Brothers and Sisters” and Gregg’s solo debut record “Laid Back” (released within months of each other during the second half of 1973) steered the Allman sound away from the guitar innovations Duane had pursued into a more steamlined but still soulful variation while 1979’s “Enlightened Rogues,” 1988’s “Seven Turns” and 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note” encapsulated the merits of three successive versions of the band. None of them, though, matched the seemingly effortless sense of adventure offered on those early Allmans records.

The announcement of Gregg Allman’s death today at age 69, sadly, isn’t surprising. It seems the singer has been cheating death for the better part of his career through a bounty of typical rock ‘n’ roll vices to a bout of Hepatitis C that led to a liver transplant to numerous maladies that interrupted a still active career in recent years.

Allman played Danville and Lexington as recently as last year with a capable revue-style program, but he looked and sounded frail, a walking testament to self-inflicted ravages.

It’s an easy estimation to say that an artist’s early work is oftentimes his or her best. But in Allman’s case, it really was. Soak in any of the recordings he was part of up through the end of 1973 and you will be witness to the voice of a generation and a genre at the peak of its stylistic strength.

“I say prayers of thanks every day,” Gregg told me in an interview prior to the Danville concert. “I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. I’ve had a beautiful life.”


chris cornell, 1964-2017

chris cornell.

Long before the rock mainstream co-opted the term “grunge” as a fashionable means to market a punk/metal-ish collective of artists pouring out of the Northwest, there was Soundgarden. The band was one of the formative voices of its generation, one empowered with garage rock smarts, youthful gusto and unapologetically brazen immediacy. At the center of that cyclone was Chris Cornell.

Cornell’s death on Tuesday is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least of which was its ruling this afternoon as a suicide by hanging. He was 52, an elder in rock ‘n’ roll terms, yet what a terribly premature age to leave the world with. But there was also the image, perhaps a naïve one to those of us outside the inner workings of an artist, that all seemed well – enviable, even – with his career. He managed the impossible by balancing performance lives as a solo artist as well as with a reconstituted Soundgarden, which regrouped in 2010 after a 13 year split.

Then again, how can an audience member even begin to comprehend what plays out in the mind of an artist they adulate, especially during that performer’s offstage life? That’s ultimately what makes Cornell’s passing so disheartening.

I first saw Cornell sometime in the late 1980s – best guess is 1989 – when Soundgarden played the long gone Short St. rock club The Wrocklage (Shakespeare & Co. now occupies that building). Memories are scattered of that performance, mostly because I knew so little of the band at the time. But I was in the minority. With the beginnings of an indie rock revolution already taking hold, word on the band has already spread. I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outside of Son Volt’s 1995 debut at The Wrocklage, I have never been in a club so packed with patrons as I was at the Soundgarden show. But Son Volt was a folk act compared to Cornell and company. What I do remember was how his voice – that atomic, operatic voice – seemed to rip the room right off the floorboards.

Flash forward to May 2007, almost a decade ago to the week. Cornell was a solo act playing the Louisville Palace one day after the release of “Carry On,” his first album following the breakup of Audioslave, the Los Angeles band he fronted with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

This was the evening that stuck with me. While Cornell was promoting new music, the two hour performance was essentially a career overview covering Soundgarden tunes, Audioslave music and even a few songs from Temple of the Dog, the famed but short lived early ‘90s Seattle band that also boasted several members of the soon-to-be-formed Pearl Jam.

And as an unassuming nod to his star status, Cornell also performed “You Know My Name,” the theme song he wrote and recorded for the first James Bond film of the Daniel Craig era (and one of the finest Bond movies overall), “Casino Royale,” which had become an international hit the previous fall.

Cornell established his credentials at the onset of the evening, tearing into the show-opening “Spoonman” – the lead single from Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album, “Superunknown.” Hearing him blast away on the songs affirmed how much the enduring Seattle bands of that era (Pearl Jam included) owed to Cornell’s intensity as well as to his honest, even good natured stage demeanor.

This wasn’t some staged presentation of rock/metal rage. The music was triumphant and real. It may have come from a different, darker generation, but it addressed the same restlessness that fueled every rock ‘n’ roll generation before and since.

col. bruce hampton, 1947-2017

col. bruce hampton.

Familiar with the term “old soul,” the common tag for a personality that might be worldlier than one’s youthful appearance would suggest? Well, Col. Bruce Hampton was the antithesis of that. Oh, he was worldly, alright, right from the early ‘70s when roamed the road with his Zappa-esque Hampton Grease Band. But the career we know the guitarist, bandleader and cosmic raconteur best for placed him in the company of a succession of players that were often a full generation younger. Hampton may have looked like everyone’s dad – portly, mustached, graying – but he possessed the same jovial, inquisitive and playful demeanor of the artists he made music with. That made him not just an unlikely hero of jam band audiences beginning in the early ‘90s, but a journeyman that gave little regard to the age discrepancy between himself and his band mates.

The ‘90s records and seemingly endless tours Hampton clocked with the Aquarium Rescue Unit by and large introduced him to an audience far larger and more loyal than the cultish pockets of fans that took to his music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hampton’s new generation groove sounds would shift considerably as the decade progressed, taking on strides of jazz, funk and fusion with succeeding bands like the Fiji Mariners and, my favorite, the Codetalkers. The latter, which played Lexington several times at the long-since demolished Dame, had Hampton and his band dressed in suits and ties (although the Col. always still looked appropriately untucked) and boasted a monster guitarist named Bobby Lee Rodgers who played his instrument through the same type of Leslie cabinet used by organ players.

“Usually, I let them go for about five or seven years,” Hampton told me in a December 1996 interview about the frequency with which he formed and dissolved bands. “Sometimes, it’s process that just happens. But that’s fine. I like to build things up and then tear them down. After all, square one is always a challenge for me.”

Whatever the band, audiences loved the music, yet no one seemed to dig it more than Hampton himself. On one hand, he seemed like an aging hippie. But in truth, he was an ageless one who fed off the youthful zeal of his fans and fellow musicians just as much as they looked to him for journeys down continually new musical paths.

Hampton’s exit, sudden and shocking as it was, seemed a strangely fitting final chapter to such an artistically freewheeling existence and career. The subject of an all-star tribute concert last night at Atlanta’s Fox Theater honoring his 70th birthday, Hampton collapsed onstage during the encore and subsequently died. A horrifying experience, no doubt for the audience and artist gathered for the occasion. But, with all the respect in the world intended, what a way for a musician to go.

allan holdsworth, 1946-2017

allan holdsworth,

What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?

For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.

For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.

On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.

The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.

“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”

« Previous entries

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright