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Allan Holdsworth: Hard Hat Area

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What to make of the enigmatic Mr. Holdsworth? Is he a jazz guitarist? Is it fusion? Suffice it to say, no other guitarist on the planet plays like him. For pure technical command on the fretboard as a soloist, few can touch him. Since the ’70s, Holdsworth has unleashed on his instrument in a manner that more closely approximates John Coltrane’s sheets-of-sound aesthetic than any other living guitarist. This is evident on two digitally remastered albums from 1993 (Hard Hat Area) and 1996 (None Too Soon), both reissued by fusion and prog-rock enthusiast Leonardo Pavkovic for his MoonJune Records.

For Hard Hat Area, Holdsworth is joined by his formidable touring lineup at the time: keyboardist Steve Hunt, bassist Skuli Sverrisson and drummer Gary Husband. This was a period when the guitarist was weaning himself off of SynthAxe and baritone guitar and playing his more conventional Steinberger and DeLap guitars. His uncanny scalar runs and unpredictable intervallic leaps are readily apparent throughout this hard-hitting affair, particularly on the slamming “Ruhkukah,” fueled by Husband’s muscular backbeats and Sverrisson’s bubbling Jaco-influenced basslines, and the dramatic, suite-like “Low Levels, High Stakes.” The title track provides a bit of a rock edge along with more examples of Holdsworth’s extraordinary legato approach. Coupled with a touch of distortion to give him infinite sustain, it results in an extremely fluid and highly personal lead sound.

For those who can’t wrap their ears around the abstruse harmonies of Holdsworth’s original compositions on Hard Hat Area like “House of Mirrors” and “Tullio” or the classically influenced “Prelude,” None Too Soon may provide some relief. A collection of interpretations of jazz standards, it gives the listener some familiar territory to grab onto in the midst of the guitarist’s otherworldly fusillades. The Coltrane connection is immediately apparent on the opening salvo, a personal take on “Countdown” on which the guitarist blows with abandon over the myriad changes while the Tribal Tech rhythm tandem of bassist Gary Willis and drummer Kirk Covington swings insistently underneath. He lays into a swinging rendition of “How Deep Is the Ocean” and two Joe Henderson tunes, “Isotope” and “Inner Urge,” with similar fluidity. The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” is done as an uptempo burner, with a brilliant piano solo by the late Gordon Beck. Holdsworth’s liquid phrasing is particularly effective on a lush extrapolation on Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” which is underscored by Covington’s supple brushwork and features Beck on digital piano. Holdsworth resurrects his SynthAxe controller for a flute-like coda on that tune as well as a lovely, lyrical rendition of Bill Evans’ “Very Early.”

Originally Published