On Composing And Allan Holdsworth
AAJ: Listening to the two piano albums, as well as Diary of a Plastic Box, your first solo album, it strikes me that there are a lot of, let's say miniaturescompositions that last just a minute or maybe just a couple of minutes. And there's that lovely contribution you made to [drummer] Asaf Sirkis' album, The Monk, (SAM, 2008) the song "The Bridge." You seem to be very comfortable with miniature compositions, sketches, whatever you want to call them.
GH: I like what a very short piece can give you; I like what it leaves you with. Most of all, this is about the effect to me. When I write like that, it's almost as if I form a little movie or little scene in my head to stimulate my imagination first. If it's a good day, I usually begin to come up with something, and really, the smaller statements have a very particular charm. I like the short form very much.
AAJ: What is the hardest part of composing for you?
GH: More often than not it's actually to sit down and start. Once that's started and from that point, there's a lot of help aroundsomehow in the air. Immediately I feel I am in the realm of the mystical a bit there, as so often it doesn't seem to be even coming from me.
AAJ: I hear this from a lot of musicians, that they feel that the music comes through them, as though they are some kind of portal. Let's talk about Allan Holdsworth. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential guitarists everI mean everyone talks about I.O.U. In what way has he inspired your music-making?
GH: He's been such a predominant figure in my own development for sure, as he actually was the first one to hire me and let me really play and not try and change it all. Back in the old days, I was a little bit on the intense side for most people's tastes as a drummer. I was always into something with a lot of reach and fire, and he was the first one who said, "Bring it on, go for it." And he really loves that from a drummera very improvisational input and participation.
He doesn't like rigidity, and in that respect I felt I'd found a place where I could reach a lot with someone. I wonder sometimes if it isn't very close to what Elvin felt like with John Coltrane, or Tony Williams with Miles.
At that time it was perfect for mea very big stepping stone insofar as how my development was about to take shape. And there is no question that a lot of significant movement was arising as a direct result of the musical relationship with Allan. I also always felt very naturally his (quite uncommon) way and just understood it immediately. That's another thing. Very much as if we were brothers or something. Peculiar.
AAJ: Holdsworth has for years made his guitar sound like anything but a guitar. It seems almost fitting to tackle his music on piano.
GH: Yeah, but in order to do it the way I wanted to do it, I had to abandon it. I abandoned much in the music only to rediscover it in a way I thought was ideal for the project in hand and for what I wanted to say through it. I know it sounds strange but I had to let him go to really discover himmaybe because I'm so close to him, and this was the only way I could instinctively do it.
AAJ: It succeeds in capturing the essence of Allan Holdsworth, and at the same time, it captures the essence of who you are as a musician. But still I think it was a very brave thing to do. Did you think at any point along the way that you were sticking your neck on the chopping block?
GH: Yeah, but that's where I like my neck. I like to walk to the edge, and I don't really operate in any kind of comfort zone. I mean, well a lot of things I've tried to do haven't seen the light of day, but of the ones that have, I am really happy about how they've turned out and what they say. They were done very fast, my projects, usually just for reasons of money constraints. But maybe because of that, I enjoy them more now. They weren't "built," they were very much performances and usually first takes.
AAJ: You played the solo Allan Holdsworth music at the London Jazz Festival, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That must have been a very special occasion. What are your memories of that night?
GH: It was a little exposing. That is a different kind of challenge, being on stage alone. You'll hear musicians the world over say that the greatest enjoyment is one of participation, and it's what makes you feel strong, in spite of the fact you are improvising.
Solo is a completely different deal completely though, but one I do actually enjoy in spite of the fact it's very challenging and you feel just naked up there. I'd love to do a lot more of it. I have a feeling that if I did a lot more of it, the music would start evolving from where it is, which would be my highest ideal.
AAJ: Have you presented either the Holdsworth or McLaughlin interpretations in a solo context often?
GH: I've done it about three times now. I have a little format for it, mixing up a program from both the albums, using prerecorded extra piano because there are two and sometimes three pianos in those scores and because they are very much of the score, written very much in a classical way. It might surprise you how much of it is actually written. I wanted it that way though; I didn't necessarily want it to be an improvisational thing. There was a lot of writing there.
For these concerts, I have tabla sounds and things on a few tracks where there's rhythm and a few different things like that. It makes for a very nice audio spread and augments the arrangements nicely.
To be clear, I have a recording of a lot of the second piano parts on a little multi-track sequencer which I put through the P.A. And in certain segments of the music, I'll have a little click track that I can monitor through headphones so I can line up timing things.
It's not easya lot of rubato and pulls and pushes in the music. It's incredibly complex in fact, but it does work very well. It's not the ideal maybe, and probably the ideal would be another pianist, I think.
AAJ: That layering of sounds reminds me, conceptually at least, of Bill Evans' Conversations with Myself, (Verve, 1963) only I find your work much more listenable than that particular Evans album.
GH: It's very kind of you; it is Conversations with Myself truly. I loved that record, another seminal influence right there. Big Bill Evansso beautiful.
AAJ: I was going to ask you about this because one thing I like a lot about your piano playing is that I don't detect obvious jazz piano influences in your playing. I can hear that there has been classical training, but you don't carry the baggage of the usual heavyweight jazz pianistsat least not overtly. Who were your models?
GH: I don't know really. All of them in some way, and none of them in another way. Hmm, well, the first admission I have to make is that I get very tired very quickly, sonically, of the sound of piano and always kind of did. I don't know why. I've got other associations too, coming through this whole classical training as a youngster, and I felt myself having to shun the classical world rather quickly because I did not feel at all comfortable with the competitive aspects, and that was really enforced from day one.
I did, in fact, rebel against it massively. I think because I then became a professional drummer, a "drummer for hire," so to speak, playing a lot of different types of music. And making a living as a drummer, the piano was starting to take shape again, behind the scenes so to speak, but this in my very own terms.
In the realm of harmony and my somewhat obsessive pursuance of it, or in a lot of the improvising way, I wasn't really coming out of any of the piano players. I've been just following my own aspirations and impulses, and exploring things on my own.
AAJ: That's what I feel.
GH: The other thing is that I never transcribed anything, never adhering to any particular methodology, or tried to follow in the footsteps of any pianist or any other instrumentalist really, no matter how huge or groundbreaking or affecting what they have done is. Because with the strongest people, you know, it's about themthat's their story. Their lines tell their story; their harmony does, their way of moving, etc. I don't really want to know Allan's lines or [saxophonist] Michael Brecker's lines, or Bill Evans' or Herbie Hancock's lines.
I really wanted to try to discover a way of aspiring toward the essence of everything fantastic I heard in those and all the others, but without necessarily knowing what it was, and then sort of having that kind of movement instilled in my own playing or something. I wanted to find another, more personally affiliated way of moving and articulating, and I'm kind of forever searching along those lines all the time.
And it is a search, but I mean, imagination is the key, isn't it?that and chasing the right kind of timing in things. We're improvisers, not emulating machines. I honestly consider it our responsibility. I mean, I love hearing great players, but then I'll hear a snapshot of Herbie or Coltrane, and I just go, why? I don't really get it. For me, this whole thing is fundamentally personal, and the goal I have for coherency and consistency in improvisational terms corresponds directly with that conviction.
AAJ: That would explain why the two piano albums, in spite of addressing the music of Holdsworth and McLaughlin, sound so personal.
GH: Well, those projects were, from the beginning, about saying a thank you to two perennial influences and inspirational artists. And in that, the projects warranted an approach based in creativity, whereby I'd be literally building that music again from scratch.
I just don't think it's enough anymore to do identical cover versions of thingsexactly the same versions. I've done it to death with people I've worked with, and I've heard numerous other people doing it to death and I'm so sick of it. It's old!
Unless you can bring some imagination to the presentation of something, or bring about a kind of freshness that certain material had when it was first brought about or something, it seems kind of fruitlessexcept, of course, when you have commercial pressures on you or something. When I read that passage from [bassist] Charles Mingus where he defines jazz as the sound of surprise though, that really had a joyous resonance in me. No one put it better than that. Brilliant.