One Track Mind: Allan Holdsworth, "The Drums Were Yellow" (2000)

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photo: Genevieve Ruocco

Of all the rock or fusion guitarists out there, there’s none out there who possesses the most pleasing tone, amazing technique and exceptional phrasing all wrapped up into one than the Brit Allan Holdsworth. He’s is a guitarist’s guitarist, having influenced everyone from Eddie Van Halen to Greg Howe. Holdsworth had been a journeyman for many years, bouncing around notable prog or fusion bands like The Soft Machine, Lifetime, UK, Level 42, Gong and Gongzilla (a spinoff of Gong).

He’s also made a good living as a sessionist, and his appearances on Jean-Luc Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean and Individual Choice elevated both of those albums. Holdsworth also performs on Ponty’s upcoming new release The Acatama Experience, which I’ll discuss in a review of that CD in a few weeks.

But Holdsworth has also performed as a leader and produced about 15 or so solo records since the late seventies. They are of varying quality but several of them are quite good. His best of all came in 2000 when he stripped down the format to the basics for The Sixteen Men of Tain. Here, there’s no overproduction or keyboards distracting from his message, which is a message of maximal musicianship, group interplay and intriguing chord progressions. If I had to pick only one electric guitar virtuoso album to take to that mythical desert island, it’s going to be The Sixteen Men of Tain. Really, it’s not even a close call.

And while I could easily go on about the whole album enough for multi-part series, one song deserve special focus That’s because “The Drums Were Yellow” is Allan’s tribute to his old boss in Lifetime, the legendary drummer Tony Williams, who sadly passed away unexpectedly ten years ago this past January. It’s also a standout in an outstanding album because it’s just Holdsworth and drummer Gary Novak tackling a really knotty composition. Thus, we get to hear what these guys are really made of.

“The Drums Were Yellow” plays like free jazz rendered with a rock attitude. Holdsworth begins by playing full, unusual chords on his SynthAxe of a barely perceptible melody that seems to float over Novak’s simple mid-tempo rhythm, with some of his trademark fluid note flourishes occasionally popping up. Finally, this two and half minute introduction of sorts gives way to a mournful sound from his Axe played in that unmistakable legato style of his as Novak shifts rhythms with increasing restlessness.

Holdsworth follows the drummer’s lead and cuts loose with a series of nasty licks before both wind down just before the soloing could get overplayed. The track ends with a solemn-sounding synthesized string statement, also from his SynthAxe, as if to be bidding his departed ex-leader farewell.

It’s one thing to be able to be able to get such a full, clean and melodic sound from a technologically advanced instrument like Holdsworth’s customized guitar synthesizer. It’s a much greater feat to coax such emotion out of it. “The Drums Were Yellow” is a tribute from one virtuoso to another that utilizes virtuosity as a tool to make music for genuine expression, rather than technical wizardry just for the sake of technical wizardry.

Listen: Allan Holdsworth “The Drums Were Yellow”

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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