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Adam Holzman: Truth Decay

John Kelman By

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Truly a musician's musician, Adam Holzman's career, visibility-wise, has waxed and waned over the keyboardist's thirty-year career, but he's never been less than busy. His time spent with Miles Davis, during the last years of the music icon's life, helped raise the masterful and broad-reaching keyboardist/producer's profile. Certainly, based on his work with jazz artists including Davis protégée Wallace Roney, Davis reissue producer/saxophonist Bob Belden, Grover Washington Jr. and Michel Petrucciani from 1989 to 2010, Holzman has kept plenty of prestigious company. And why shouldn't he? In the jazz world, he's a keyboardist with a full appreciation for its tradition, its broad and sophisticated language, and the demands made by a genre that has continued to evolve in a myriad of ways since emerging around the turn of the 20th century.

But Holzman, son of Elektra and Nonesuch Records founder Jac Holzman, has always been even more expansive in his interests and musical predilections. He has been running a weekly "funny 'cause it's true" comic strip on his Facebook page that was recently collected into a self-released paperback book with the same title, Things That Aren't That Big a Deal: But Still Bug the Shit Out of Me! (2017). He's explored electronic music with his own Parallel Universe: Solo Electronic Explorations (Composers Concordance Recordings, 2013). He's also participated in ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek's modern day exploration of classical composer Carlo Orff's Carmina Burana (A&M, 1983), produced by Philip Glass and Kurt Munkacsi.

And that's only scratching the surface. An exceptional pianist, Holzman's intrinsic virtuosity is further elevated by a particularly strong sense of color and texture, as demonstrated by the various keyboards employed on Truth Decay, his first studio band outing since Spork (Big Fun, 2010). In addition to acoustic piano, Truth Decay finds Holzman employing a broad array of keyboards, ranging from Memotron (a digital Mellotron) and various electric pianos, like Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, to Hammond organ and assorted Moog, Korg and Kurzweil synths, many often fed through outboard effects like ring modulation, delay and more.

As a leader, he's released a dozen albums spanning a variety of styles and approaches, ranging from the decidedly fusion-centric Spork to the classical-meets-jazz leanings of The Deform Variations (Burning Shed, 2015), a solo piano record constructed from 27 brief introductions to "Deform to Form a Star," recorded on a 2013 world tour with the increasingly high profile progressive rocker Steven Wilson. Holzman has, in fact, been Wilson's keyboardist of choice since the ex-Porcupine Tree singer, guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter began touring under his own name in 2011 in support of his second solo album, Grace for Drowning (Kscope, 2011).

That Holzman has participated in every subsequent Wilson recording and extensive tour schedule, ranging from the retro-prog of The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories (Kscope, 2013) to last year's prog-pop To the Bone (Caroline, 2017), only supports what musicians (and, increasingly, more and more fans) already knew: Holzman can fit into virtually any musical context with absolute aplomb and complete credibility.

Of course, the down side of being fully committed to Wilson since late 2011 is that Holzman's own solo work has largely taken a back seat, though he has managed to produce and perform on both ON (Madfish, 2016) and ON Tour (Big Fun, 2017), albums led by guitarist (and wife) Jane Getter, the latter recorded during two short tours in a relatively rare downtime period from Wilson. Still, on the road and during those off periods, Holzman has also been working slowly on Truth Decay, and it's been well worth the wait.

Truth Decay retains many of the touchstones that made Spork such an exhilarating listen, from pedal-to-the-metal fusion to visceral, booty-shaking funk, and features two returning members of his Brave New World Band, bassist Freddy Cash, Jr. and drummer Abe Fogle, on five of its eleven tracks. But just as Wilson's equally expansive tastes (and his other gig as a surround sound remixer of everything from classic progressive rock to '80s synth-pop) has both informed and provided context for his solo work, so, too, has Holzman's seven-year tenure with Wilson informed the music of Truth Decay, which features (for the first time) two vocal tracks: one cover, sung by Randy McStine; and the equally compelling title track, featuring Wilson band mate, bassist/vocalist Nick Beggs, who, in addition to writing the lyrics, both sings and contributes Chapman Stick to this topically relevant song.

The ten Holzman compositions and lone cover on Truth Decay's nearly hour-long blend of fusion and progressive tendencies also takes advantage of other musicians with whom Holzman has worked in Wilson's touring band. Current drummer Craig Blundell appears on the slow-build of "Bella Capri," a trio track also featuring British (in this case, fretless) bassist Laurence Cottle. A ballad, to be sure; but, with its classically-informed acoustic piano arpeggios driving it towards a middle section that blends a variety of keyboards, from guitar-like synth phrases to warm Memotron chordal washes, it's one that possesses its own unmistakable blend of drama and dynamics.

Blundell also plays on Truth Decay's cover of "A House is Not a Motel," from '60s proto-progressive group Love and its classic Forever Changes (Elektra, 1967). A relative (but still more complexly arranged) rocker sung by McStine, it features a spontaneous yet clearly focused synth solo from Holzman that sets a high bar, matched and raised by Wilson alum, reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, appearing here on delay-driven flute, before being even further elevated by the keyboardist's jazz-inflected Rhodes solo. McStine's voice is a perfect match for the song, from his softer, almost foreboding delivery early in the tune to a more potent coda, following an electrifying improvisational free-for all from Travis, Holzman and Getter, where McStine ratchets his voice up a notch or ten, reaching high into the stratosphere as the song pushes even harder to its dissolver of a close.

The spirit of Miles Davis still looms over Holzman on the greasy funk and ring modulated Rhodes-driven "Phobia," featuring Truth Decay's largest lineup. Its core sextet, alongside Holzman, Getter, Cash and Fogle, also includes soprano saxophonist Ofer Assaf and Franz Hackl, whose warm, open, mid-range horn early in the piece and Harmon-muted trumpet nearer its conclusion are particularly emblematic of Davis' continued influence more than a quarter century after his passing. A brief middle section, which drops the dynamics by cutting out both drums and guitar, only renders Steven Wilson's sole guest appearance that follows even more effective and impactful: an angular, jagged and noise-driven guitar solo that, after a reiteration of the song's theme, ultimately leads to a heavily overdriven power chord that expands in volume, only to suddenly cut off as the song ends. Wilson may not have much in the way of jazz pedigree, but his contribution to "Phobia" is a perfect reflection of Davis' cross-genre leanings, especially in the final two decades of his career—leanings that have long driven Holzman as well.

Timing, they say, is everything, and both Truth Decay's track sequence and even the space between the tracks—something few listeners consider but an essential part of creating an album-length arc—have clearly been afforded plenty of consideration. The four-on-the-floor, high-octane album-opener, "Ectoplasm," sets the album's fusion-leaning vibe immediately, as Holzman's breathtaking synth solo (Jan Hammer, watch out!) and Travis' similarly galvanizing soprano sax feature make clear that Truth Decay is not an album for the electric-averse. But it's the back-to-back quadrafecta of "Bella Capri," "A House is Not a Motel," "Phobia" and the brighter, prog-leaning and electro-centric "Good Luck With Your Music," which seamlessly segue from one to the next, that helps defines both the album's broad reach and its ability to shape stories within stories.

"Good Luck With Your Music" is a major sonic feature for Holzman. Accompanied only by Fogle and Assaf, his commingled Moog bass and other synth textures support one of his most flat-out beautiful (acoustic) piano solos of the set. "Are You High" is pure New York: a horn-driven, Brecker Brothers-tinged piece where Hackl is joined by tenor saxophonist Travis, clearly channeling his inner Michael Brecker alongside the personal voice which has rendered him in such high demand, recording and/or touring with everyone from David Gilmour and Soft Machine to Gong and The Tangent, amongst many others. With its first-encounter rhythm section of Blundell and bassist Mark Egan swinging its ass off in its own very particular way, "Are You High," also features Travis and Holzman, their extended, modal-based solos running through the track's detailed arrangement, along with a heart-pumping trade-off, with Holzman's mind-blowing synth lines and Blundell's staggering kit work challenging each other to once again push this recording's bar even higher.

In addition to Holzman's acoustic and Wurlitzer electric pianos, the dark-hued "I Told You So," featuring drummer Davide Ragazzoni and bassist Stefano Olivato (who also layers some wonderfully melodic harmonica), is yet another high point on an album where it's difficult to pick standout tracks because every one of them is a winner. Elsewhere, the metrically shifting "Morphine Lollipop" is amongst the album's most overtly progressive-leaning tracks, as is the vocal-driven title track. With nods to everything from late-'70s Soft Machine to, with Holzman's intoxicating electric piano solo, mid-'70s Herbie Hancock-inspired funk/fusion, the complex form and sonic details of "Morphine Lollipop" harken back to a time when jazz and classical artists strove to fuse their musical backgrounds with the emerging rock music of the mid-to-late 1960s and early-to-mid-'70s. And yet, as much as Truth Decay is possessed of a myriad of past touchstones, it remains a thoroughly modern album, infused with the unmistakable voices of its participants.

Driven by programmed sequences, the 7/4-metered title track is a paradoxically gentle track, considering how it revolves around the current, chaotic state of American politics...at least for its first three-and-a-half minutes that is, where Beggs sings solo and with a variety of layered harmonies. But the song then begins its gradually build, as Getter's gritty guitar solo, bookended by Holzman's sinewy synth lines, is driven by Cash and Fogle's increasingly tougher groove. Building to an inevitable climax, the song ultimately turns to a softer conclusion, based around the same chord patterns but with a richer blending of layered, wordless vocals and keyboards.

Throughout Truth Decay, Holzman's strength as a writer has rarely been so focused, nor his breadth of musical interests so beautifully meshed. His playing—and, for that matter, that of his various musical partners—moves effortlessly between unadorned beauty, visceral grooves and harsher terrains. There's plenty of virtuosity on display, but there's not a single wasted or excessive note to be found. An album that skirts many musical borders but, more often than not, dissolves them rather than bumping up against them, Truth Decay is further evidence that we are the sum total of our musical (and life) experiences. An album that would not likely have happened with its particular specificities, were it not for the keyboardist's now-longstanding relationship with Wilson, it's also an enthralling recording that nobody but Holzman could have made.

Track Listing: Ectoplasm; Bella Capri; A House is Not a Motel; Phobia; Good Luck With Your Music; Are You High?; Truth Decay; I Told You So; Morphine Lollipop; You Knew; Picking Through the Wreckage.

Personnel: Adam Holzman: keyboards (1-7, 9), fake guitar solo (1), drum programming (1), ring modulator (4, 10), piano (5, 7, 10, 11), Moog bass (5, 9), toy piano (6), sequencer (7), percussion programming (7), vocoder (8), electric piano (8), synthesizers (11) Theo Travis: soprano saxophone (1), flutes and delays (3), tenor saxophone (6); Jane Getter: wah guitar (1), guitar (3, 10), rhythm guitar (4), guitar solo (7); Freddy Cash, Jr.: bass (1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10); Abe Fogle: drums (1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10); Laurence Cottle: fretless bass (2); Craig Blundell: drums (2, 3, 6); Randy McStine: vocals (3); Franz Hackl: trumpet (4, 6), flugelhorn (6); Ofer Assaf: soprano saxophone (4, 9), tenor saxophone (5, 9, 10)); Steven Wilson: guitar solo (4); Mark Egan: bass (6), acoustic bass (11); Nick Beggs: vocals (7), Chapman Stick (7); Stefano Olivato: harmonica (8), bass (8); Davide Ragazzoni: drums (8); Russell Holzman: additional percussion (9).

Title: Truth Decay | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Big Fun Productions

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