When I was young, I became acquainted with music. A few years later, I became acquainted with rock critics.
As a result, there is a background nagging voice when I listen to certain CDs. An example of that type of CD is Blues for Tony, the new live release featuring guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
I’ve been dealing with Holdsworth’s music on and off since the early 90’s. By then, I was familiar with a lot of jazz and rock, but his music took more work to decipher than most in those styles. I like a challenge, at least in music, so I put in some time with his IOU record and a few others.
Why is it a challenge? Like a lot of music that uses some elements of rock but includes very technically adept playing, Holdsworth’s music has a cold surface. Imagine a midpoint between Steely Dan and Rush. As well, his compositions evidently center around his urge to challenge himself. Something seems odd about needing to sit and count bars while listening to a piece of music before you can get to the stage of enjoying it. For instance, one track on Blues for Tony, “Pud Wud,” is a 25-bar structure, and another, “Looking Glass,” is 29 bars, subdivided into 10 and 19 bar sections, during the solos. Or at least that’s what I’ve determined so far. (For that matter, something seems odd about studying a piece of music called “Pud Wud,” but I suppose that’s a trivial issue.)
Why is it worth the trouble? Holdsworth has put in enough work not only to deal with those structures, but to create gripping improvised statements over them. Once I internalized those structures, it was possible to get to the foundational melodies that begin most of his solos, the spirals of rapid arpeggios that emerge as he builds intensity, the way he can steer them around each corner that comes up as the chords change.
Blues for Tony is a good starting point for this music. It is a retrospective set, dedicated to Tony Williams, who gave Holdsworth and keyboardist Alan Pasqua one of their first major gigs back in the 70’s. Like almost everyone else, the drummer here, Chad Wackerman, doesn’t have Williams’s intensity, but he’s wise enough not to try to imitate. And like almost everyone else, Pasqua is a less distinctive improviser than Holdsworth, but his milder mannered work is a good foil for the guitarist’s flightiness.
Blues for Tony was one project for me this month. (Others were Keith Jarrett’s Testament, of which more later, and “Time Turns Elastic.”) By the end of the month “Looking Glass” was cycling through my head, so apparently the project was worth the investment.
That said, I remember one session with this CD when I followed it up with another one, a record by a black Detroit metal trio from the 70’s called Death. The last song, “Politicians In My Eyes,” closes with several minutes of nothing but one repeated chord pattern. That had an immediate impact. I suppose it is not possible to dismiss the rock critic viewpoint (with its emphasis on immediate impact, and its issues with cold surfaces) completely.