Allan Holdsworth Trio
Maison de la Culture de Gatineau
September 28, 2009
In a trio, changing only one member can make a tremendous difference. It's been two years since guitar legend Allan Holdsworth last performed in eastern Canada but, with an eight-city tour focused largely in the province of Quebec, it's a very different trio than that of his long overdue return to the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2007. Longtime bassist Jimmy Johnson was still around, but instead of Chad Wackermanwho is more often heard with Holdsworth on North American toursthis time it was Gary Husband behind the kit. Both Husband and Wackerman are powerhouse drummers but, based on the trio's performance at the Maison de la Culture de Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa, it was an entirely different band. Husband was last seen on these shores touring with another guitar icon, John McLaughlin, in 2007, but whereas his focus then was on keyboards, with some percussive work on his "jungle kit," here it was all-drums, providing a real demonstration of the communication and interaction this trio possesses, even when the music is high octane and high velocity.
l:r Allan Holdsworth, Gary Husband, Jimmy Johnson
With the repertory of a lifetime's career to choose from, Holdsworth's selection ran the gamut. He drew as far back as his enduring (and compositionally most direct) "Fred," first heard with Tony Williams' New Lifetime on Believe It (Columbia, 1975) and recently found in more expansive live form on Blues for Tony (MoonJune, 2009), with fellow Lifetime keyboardist Alan Pasqua, Wackerman amd Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip. Despite the lack of a chordal instrument to accompany him during this and every solo, with Johnson treading numerous lines between contrapuntal partner, harmonic foundation and rhythmic co-anchor, there was no problem finding the changes, as Holdsworth soloed with his by-now trademark sustaining tone, delivering cascade-after- cascade of legato lines, along with unpredictable pauses of hanging onto a single note, thus creating a most visceral tension-and-release.
Texturally, Holdsworth has never sounded better. With a heavily chorused but clean tone, he used a volume pedal, reverb and delay to create layered voicings on his intro to a lengthy medley that began with "Madame Vintage" from Softworks' Abracadabra (Tone Center, 2003)the guitarist's short-lived 2003 reunion with former members of Soft Machine, the legendary British group with whom he received one of his early pushes into the public eye. Husband proved himself as astute at nuance as he was at higher octane playing, supporting Holdsworth's fluid lines as the medley moved into "Above and Below," one of the more subdued and lyrical moments of the 80-minute set, expanding on the original version from The Sixteen Men of Tain (Gnarly Geezer, 2000) and demonstrating the sophisticated harmonic language that's influenced not just generations of guitarists but other instrumentalists as well, like Hatfield and the North's Dave Stewart.
Gradually picking up steam in an instrumental version of "The Things You See" that more resembled his version on the live All Night Wrong (Sony, 2002) than it did the vocal version on I.O.U, (Enigma, 1985), Holdsworth returned to his overdriven tone for a solo that blended frightening intervallic leaps with lines so long and fast that it was difficult, at times, to keep up. He finished the medley, again, on a more atmospheric note for a subdued version of "Material Real," from his breakthrough 1983 EP, Road Games, reissued on CD by Eddie Jobson's Globe Music in 2002. It was a stunning confirmation and consolidation of all the distinctive qualities that have made Holdsworth a true guitarist's guitarist, with an ear for texture and staggering technique that allowed him to create lengthy harmonic movement, with leading notes sustaining through his voicings to create seamless and pause-less changes. It also demonstrated his legato tone with a little more edge, a welcome reemergence in recent years, and the closest thing to John Coltrane's legendary "sheets of sound" as has been heard on guitar.
A look at Road Game's "Water on the Brain" provided an early feature for Johnson, a bassist who leads a true double life. Playing with singer/songwriter James Taylor for two decades, he can be as spare and simple as they come, mining groove with an attention to detail and the value of a single note. But here, with Holdsworth, he proved himself a virtuosic electric bassist with an uncanny ability to go deep-in- the gut in the low register, while coming close to flamenco bass at the higher end of his instrument. All this while he demonstrated the same attention to pulse and groove as he does with Taylor, only here the context was busier, demanding a different but not entirely dissimilar set of ears as he locked in with Husband on the pulsing "Gaslamp Blues," also from All Night Wrong.
As for Husband? He's well-known in fusion and rock circles, touring these days with Cream legend , bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Robin Trower, but he's been demonstrating no shortage of pure jazz cred on his own albums, including the marvelous but overlooked Hotwired (Abstract Logix, 2009), with his post-Miles Davisian group, Drive. With Holdsworth it's often far more aggressive, but the same demands exist as in any improvising unit. Like Johnson, his ears are wide open, more often less obvious than in a humorous ending to "Material Real." As the musicians were allowing the music to fade to black, Holdsworthin an uncharacteristically impish moodlet loose a brief phrase with a mischievous smile on his face; Husband, also grinning grinning, responded and brought the medley to a more definitive close. More impressive, and far subtler, was Husband's ability to find small rhythmic motifs during some of the evening's more atmospheric passages, occasionally grounding the ethereality but not sounding out of context.
But the real feature for Husband came in his extended solo near the end of "Letters of Marque," also from I.O.U.. In a stunning display of sheer technique and undeniable musicality, Husband constructed a solo filled with invention, as he mined rhythmic and melodic motifs for all they were worth, each one leading to another and establishing a dynamic ebb and flow that built to a climactic peak accompanied by the audience's screaming and whistling. It was but one of many such moments throughout the set, which ended all too soon, the group returning briefly for the hardest rocking tune of the night, "Red Alert," with Holdsworth pumping out dense power chords in an arrangement far harder-edged than the version on Blues for Tony.
With a nearly full house in an intimate and fine-sounding concert theater with a capacity for about 300 people, what was most obvious about this trio, musicianship aside, was the fun they were having. Before the show, Johnson reflected on the rigors of a road trip, with nobody to load their gear or drive the vanbut that it was all worth it, to play with Holdsworth and Husband. Tiring, perhaps, but when they hit the stage the long trips and late nights disappeared, and the trio played as if their lives depended on it. There were lots of smiles going around, and while the trio with Wackerman is a fine one, there was a greater sense of relaxation with the present assembly, on and off the stage. Not necessarily better, just different, but clearly a trio that enjoys each other's company both musically and personally. Husband remarked, before the show, that sometimes when he's most tired he plays his best: if that's so, then he must have been very tired...as must be the case with Holdsworth and Johnson, as the trio delivered a performance that will be remembered by the Gatineau audience for a long time to come.
Group Photo, Jimmy Johnson: John R. Fowler
Allan Holdsworth, Gary Husband: John Kelman