by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad.
Adam Holzman’s footprint looms large on the jazz world. The keyboardist and composer has released six uncompromising, intense jazz-rock albums. He’s also served as Miles Davis’ musical director, and performed with jazz luminaries such as Wayne Shorter, Michel Petrucciani, Chaka Khan, and Grover Washington, Jr., just to name a few.
Holzman is a first-call musician because he bridges virtuosity and vision. He’s a mercurial performer, capable of seamlessly shifting from blazing chops to the nuanced and subtle. Holzman also has a highly-collaborative bent, understanding what it takes to propel a project to completion, even in the company of some of the most exacting leaders imaginable.
Holzman’s current focus is working with Steven Wilson, the expansive rock artist that’s helped resurrect interest in long-form conceptual music. Holzman has recorded and performed with Wilson since 2011. He serves as a key creative sounding board when Wilson is exploring new ideas and is often the last man left in the studio with Wilson, working late into the night to finesse session output.
"Adam is a very creative musician who has a deep understanding of the language of jazz and has successfully integrated that language into the rock world," said keyboardist and composer Jason Miles, who worked with Holzman on Davis' 1986 Tutu album. "It's not an easy minefield to navigate, but he does it with relative ease. It's been really cool to watch his metamorphosis and see him now recognized as one of rock's top keyboardists. He's always dedicated himself to excellence and you see that across all the work he does."
Deform Variations, Holzman’s latest album, emerged from his performances with Wilson. It collects his piano improvisations built around the Wilson track “Deform to Form a Star” from the Grace for Drowning release. Deform Variations offers a unique listening experience that reveals how Holzman’s approach to the song morphed and evolved across Wilson’s 2013 tour.
Holzman’s other recent release, Parallel Universe, explores the realm of experimental electronic music, exclusively using analog synthesizers. The album focuses on ambient and textural improvisations that evoke influences including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick and Tangerine Dream.
Another project in Holzman’s orbit is Jane Getter Premonition, an all-star jazz-rock band that also includes Bryan Beller, Stuart Hamm, Alex Skolnick, and Chad Wackerman. Getter, an accomplished guitarist and composer, is also Holzman’s wife. He contributes to the band’s fiery recordings and performances, including her most recent release On.
Provide some insight into the idea behind Deform Variations.
The project consists of one- to two-minute piano introductions that are improvised before Steven Wilson’s song “Deform to Form a Star.” On tour, I would play these introductions a little differently each time. It continued to evolve as I took more and more liberties. Eventually, it got to the point at which I would start with the first few bars to signal the beginning of the song and then I’d go off on my own tangent. Sometimes it was related to the song and sometimes it wasn’t. Eventually, I’d always work my way back to the top of the intro again. I felt the improvs were pretty cool. It was an interesting challenge to compress these ideas into very short snippets. Steven’s manager Andy Leff suggested pulling the piano improvs out and assembling them into a solo piano project. As soon as he mentioned it, it got the ideas going. I went through a couple of tours’ worth of shows and chose 27 solos.
I’ve been listening to Keith Jarrett’s improvisations since I was a teenager. He’s a big influence on me, especially when I touch on the gospel-inspired stuff, which I love. There’s some of that on Deform Variations that I’m proud of. In general, I played well at these gigs. When I’m on tour with Steven, I’m on top of my game. So, the piano improvs are very presentable. I can live with them. Typically, I’m very critical of my piano playing.
Describe the process of choosing the solos and sequencing them to make them work as an album.
It was a matter of going through all of the shows and compiling a list of candidates. There were a few I chose that didn’t make it onto the record. The ones I felt worked together were thrown into a folder. They popped up alphabetically in it and I listened to them that way. For the most part, the alphabetical approach actually worked. So, that’s how it ended up with a near-alphabetical track order. I made a few tweaks like “Buenos Aires” getting pulled into the middle, but for the most part it adheres to the original folder listing. So, it’s a serendipity thing. I’m happy the album has received such a positive response.
What made you want to pursue the world of electronic music with Parallel Universe?
It’s another example of a project that’s off my normal train of activity. Most of my career, I’ve done band-oriented albums with my current working group. Since I started working with Steven Wilson, I started releasing things reflecting more quirky parts of my other musical personalities. As for Parallel Universe, I’ve spent years in my studio late at night just messing around with analog toys and making bizarre sounds. At some point, when I got really heavily into the Moog Voyager, I started recording them more carefully. I ended up with a pile of pretty cool-sounding ambient textural improvised analog pieces. So, I decided to assemble them into an album. I haven’t really revealed this side of my musical personality much before. I’d like to do more electronic music in the future.
Who are some of the key electronic artists that influenced you?
I go back to the old school guys like Morton Subotnick. My dad, Jac Holzman, commissioned his album Silver Apples of the Moon for Nonesuch in the ‘60s. It was one of the first pieces of electronic music commissioned for an LP. I also liked Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach a lot. Old school 20th century composers like Stockhausen and Ligeti are also important to me. The analog music experiments of the ‘50s and ‘60s really fascinate me. It took those musicians so long to assemble those tracks. Of course, we can do it so easily now, but the way they put the music together had a lot to do with its compositional quality.
With Parallel Universe, I chose not to layer up a lot of stuff. It’s a stereo live pass with very few overdubs. I found when I tried to pile on too many analog textures, it started to plug things up and the music became less interesting. I do believe that with the Moog, even though you might be working with simple building blocks of sound, the possibilities are really endless.
I made a connection between Parallel Universe and Tangerine Dream’s early ‘70s output. Did you listen to a lot of their music?
I’m a latecomer to Tangerine Dream. But if you listen to the piece “Amoeba” on Parallel Universe, you’ll find I was influenced by Tangerine Dream without knowing it. For many years, I was doing textural things, getting pulses and creating sounds that were washing in and out. Occasionally, a melody or chord structure would emerge. I must have heard Tangerine Dream’s stuff and been vaguely aware of it, but I didn’t become an active fan until I met Steven Wilson. He said “Dude, you’re blowing it if you don’t know their music.” [laughs] So, I caught up real quickly. Now, I love albums like Phaedra, Stratosfear and Ricochet. Those records took so much work at that time to create. They really had to have their act together.
What sort of freedom do these solo projects offer you compared to working in a band context?
It’s exactly that—freedom. It’s another framework and setting to explore. In a band framework, certain things are expected, including hip grooves and solos, and good, strong songs. In the solo framework, nothing is expected and I can do what I want. In a way, I always do what I want, but with these two projects, I can just go for it. These aren’t albums in which I continued to work and rework things. It was refreshing to work in different zones in which I wasn’t expected to live up to conventional musical expectations.
How did you first connect with Steven Wilson?
I was a big Porcupine Tree fan for a long time before I had a chance to meet Steven. So, when I got wind that he was looking for a keyboard player, I stood up real straight in my chair. [laughs] They had hired Gary Husband for a tour which was going to begin in early October 2011. In early September, I got an email from a buddy of mine who works at Korg who said he heard Steven was going crazy looking for a new keyboard player because Gary was no longer going to do the tour.
My name ended up on a list of possibilities. I was willing to trash my schedule on short notice and jump into it because I was already a fan. I was into what Steven was doing and loved his combination of elements. I had a conversation with Steven and he hired me over the phone. I think what clinched it is Jordan Rudess told Steven that he felt I would be a good fit.
I had just three weeks to learn the music. I also had never done a gig with a laptop before, so I had to spruce up the technological side of what I do, too. I had to get a laptop and load it up with all the right sounds for the songs. There was a steep learning curve running up to the first round of rehearsals. What I did was sit down at a piano for the first two weeks and learn the music without worrying about the sounds and patches. Once I had that together, it was a little bit easier to assemble all the technical stuff. I’m running MainStage, which is part of Logic on the laptop. It’s what Steven uses. He suggested I use it so we can trade sounds back and forth. He hooked me up with great Mellotron sounds which we use on the gig a lot.
During the AIR Studio sessions for Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., it looked like the two of you had developed a serious musical connection and collaborative approach.
I think so too. But I don’t want to theorize too much about why it worked out well in the long run, but it did. I happened to have the right combination of styles that was well suited for what he’s doing. I do feel there are certain elements in my playing that he incorporates into his writing. We tend to agree on things 98 percent of the time. At the end of the day though, he’s the man. This is his music. I’m happy to be a part of it as a sideman and second set of ears. Everyone in the band is here to serve his vision. At the same time, I do think we’ve all become an important part of the sound.
In terms of how we worked together on the album, Steven would initially send me demos and have me redo keyboard parts he already created. He encouraged me to come up with additional ideas and suggestions. So, I would throw things together and send them back. He would say “I like this” for some things and “Let’s skip that” for others. It was a back-and-forth process. For the solo in “3 Years Older,” we were experimenting to figure out what kind of solo to have in there. We tried piano, Moog and then finally settled on organ. At one point it sounded a little too much like Rick Wakeman. At another point, it sounded too far out like Sun Ra or Larry Young. We eventually found a happy medium. That’s the nuts and bolts of how things work.
In the studio, I’m always making suggestions. I know it’s his project though. If he doesn’t like an idea, it’s fine with me and I’ll come up with something else. I like to stay in the thick of things when there are structural decisions being made. I like being part of hammering out the parts.
What can you do in Wilson’s band that you can’t do in others?
What makes it unique is that I can do a little bit of everything in this band. I can bring things into it from all my other projects, including my work with my high-school prog-rock band, Miles Davis, Wallace Roney, Grover Washington, Jr., and Chaka Khan. It’s unusual to be able to use all of this stuff in one context. With most gigs, there’s an emphasis in one general area, with a few peripheral things. But in Steven’s group, I get to solo and comp, do textural stuff and soundscape weirdness, and play a lot of piano. I’m also a rock guy going way back and there’s nothing more satisfying than playing a big-ass triad on a Mellotron super-loud, which I get to do with Steven.
Another difference with Steven’s gig compared to my jazz-oriented work is that in a jazz context, I’m used to walking onstage, emptying my mind, jumping in, and being in the moment. Steven’s band requires both the left and right sides of your brain. We use a click track to synchronize with the visuals, so you don’t have the chance to regroup and work your way back if you make a little mistake. Everything has to be dead on. So, it requires a high level of concentration and that took some time getting used to. At the same time, I have to jump from that mode of thought into the more trippy, free-thinking jazz approach during the show. I have to shift back and forth. It’s a lot of fun. At the end of every gig, my brain is buzzing.
What was it like to be Miles Davis’ musical director?
Miles would have raw ideas that he’d play on piano or a Yamaha DX5. He’d play riffs or chord changes and I’d stand there with my tape recorder capturing them. Then Miles would say “Okay, I want you to show that to the band.” Next, I’d go home and transcribe what he played, try to figure out what he was getting at, and take my best crack at writing some charts. Then I’d show them to the band and get the music up and running. Miles would then come in to rehearsals and of course he would change everything around. My role was to get the canvas ready and translate his ideas for the bands.
I was in the band previously for three years, working with Bobby Irving, the former musical director. I watched Bobby and Miles interact for a long time. During that period, Miles would give me little assignments like “Go transcribe Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.'” He was always interested in covering pop tunes. We explored a lot of pop songs that never saw the light of day. Everyone knows about Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” but we also performed Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” during my first tour with Miles. He also really liked “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. Those artists were writing good melodies and he had a good ear for that.
Several people connected to Davis have said there were lots of attempts at recording covers and other contemporary songs that never saw the light of day.
When Miles changed over from Sony to Warner, he went on to release the Tutu album. But before that album, he was collaborating with Randy Hall, the guy who sang the title track for the 1981 album The Man with the Horn. Randy was part of the original Miles Chicago crew, which also included Bobby Irving, Vince Wilburn, Jr., and Felton Crews. They recorded a number of tunes for Sony, but as far as I know, only the title track and "Shout" have been released.
Also, during The Man with the Horn era, the producer Teo Macero brought in another group that included T.M. Stevens, Larry Coryell, Masabumi Kikuchi, and Al Foster. They recorded a bunch of basic tracks that, to my knowledge, Miles never played on, so that project never happened. The band got revamped again, with Marcus Miller, Mike Stern and Bill Evans coming in. They, along with Al Foster, became the new core of the band and the album that followed used two tracks from the Randy, Bobby and Vince sessions, which were “The Man with the Horn” and “Shout.”
Several years later, when we started working on the album that was to become Tutu, Randy was co-producing with another musician named Zane Giles from the group Con Funk Shun. They worked together on a number of tracks for Miles at Ray Parker’s studio in North Hollywood. One of the tracks is the semi-legendary “Rubber Band.” By the time I joined the band in October 1985, it was Bobby Irving, Vince Wilburn, Jr., Angus Thomas, Mike Stern, Marilyn Mazur, Steve Thornton, and Bob Berg. During late summer 1985, this band recorded “Broken Wings” and “Maze” live in the studio prior to Tutu.
Together, we recorded a whole pop album’s worth of stuff for Warner. The recording at Ray Parker's studio continued with Randy and Zane, plus Vince Wilburn, Jr., myself, and some other people contributing. At that point, the regular working band was not really involved. There were going to be songs featuring Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan and other special guests.
Tommy LiPuma, Miles’ producer at the time, decided to start recording the tracks “Tutu,” “Portia” and “Splatch” with only Miles, Marcus Miller and I over at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood. Those tracks became the core of Tutu. The pieces seemed to fit Miles better than the stuff we worked on at Ray Parker's studio. Marcus filled out the rest of Tutu in New York, taking a programmed approach to it. That’s why Tutu turned out as it did.
The tracks we worked on prior to it—some of which Miles played on and some of which he had yet to lay his parts on—were put in a closet where they’ve sat ever since. A few have emerged. There’s one called “See I See” which I transcribed from some of Miles' keyboard ideas. I played keys and synth bass and did some drum programming for it. He plays great on that. “Rubber Band” has also made it out there. But there wasn’t a lot of finished, unreleased material with Miles actually playing on the tracks. He would usually put his tracks on the music once the material made it through the mill into its end state.
Davis had a reputation for being frustratingly difficult to parse. What was your experience?
There’s an impression that Miles only spoke in oblique terms and riddles that were unsolvable and that’s not entirely true. He could be very specific. He would talk about two-bar phrases, and rhythm guitar parts and horn lines by James Brown and Prince. He’d play me examples of stuff he liked. For instance, he’d play me Prince’s “Electric Chair” from the Batman soundtrack as something he’d like to cover. He loved Prince. We learned an unreleased Prince song called “Movie Star” which we performed quite a bit, but it never made it to a record. There was another Prince song called “Jailbait” that we’d play after hours that also never saw the light of day.
Having said that, Miles would still pose conundrums and say things like "Adam, you should subdivide some of it.” That meant he wanted us to play things in half-time and others in double-time. But I wouldn’t know which parts he was referring to, so I’d take a wild guess. Very often, even if you didn’t do exactly what he had in mind, he would at least be somewhat pleased because you attempted to address what he was talking about. He could also be really, really critical and you’d feel like an idiot for a week afterwards. Once he said to me “Adam, what were you doing back there?” I replied “I don’t know Miles, what are you talking about?” Then he said “It sounds like you knocked something over.” [laughs] Another time he said “Adam, you’re playing it wrong.” At this point, I had been in the band three years and we were playing a tight set. So, I replied “What am I playing wrong, Miles? Which tunes?” He said “All of it.” [laughs] So, he just wasn’t happy that day.
Again, I’d attempt to address what he meant by trying to do things a little different and he would definitely key in on that. But if he was critical, you’d be down in the dumps for a week. If he was complementary, you’d be floating on a cloud for a week. Sometimes, small, innocuous statements coming from him would carry a lot of weight with the rest of us. I still wake up in the middle of the night and think to myself “So, that’s what he meant!” [laughs] It’s usually related to some oblique phrase or concept he once tried to get me to understand. You know, Miles would be really supportive if you were in his band and one of the guys. The vibe was “There’s the band and the rest of the world.” It was really great to be part of it.
How did the musical director opportunity come about?
It was by default. Bobby Irving left the band. The keyboard players tended to be the musical directors. Miles had been training me all along, giving me things to transcribe and asking me to go make demos of his raw ideas. I’d go home with my drum machine and try to create something for him to respond to. Sometimes, he liked what I did. Other times he would say it wasn’t quite right for whatever reason, but it felt like he was getting me ready for something. He was planting seeds everywhere, with all kinds of musicians. I think I got the job mainly because I was a keyboard player and could write out the music for the rest of the guys in the band. Not everyone in the band had standard notation skills.
What was it like for you to be asked to take the role?
It wasn’t a big official thing. It was more that Bobby was leaving the band. He had been in it for five years and near the end, he got more involved in producing other projects. There was a conflict between him producing a Terri-Lynn Carrington album and a European Miles tour. At that point, Bobby decided to move on and focus on production. I then got a call from Miles that went “So, you’re MD now. Don’t fuck it up.” [laughs] It wasn’t like I was officially appointed musical director and everyone knew about it. It was a more casual thing, but at the gigs he started introducing me as his musical director. I think he was just being nice to me. My impression is that Miles was more collaborative with Bobby than me. I felt more like Miles’ musical errand boy, but that was fine with me. It was an honor to be that.
How did you come to initially join the Davis band?
It was an amazing moment to get asked. I was working with Randy Hall, who was doing his own R&B record for MCA, working at Ray Parker’s studio. He met me at Goodman Music in North Hollywood in the early ‘80s where I was working selling synthesizers. It turned out to be a key place to be for several reasons. I met amazing people and made incredible connections there, the most amazing of which was Miles. But I also had a front row seat for the beginning of the MIDI revolution. All of the MIDI gear was just coming out then and I had to learn how to work all of this stuff and demo it. I was involved in some pretty advanced gear at the time. I could program Emulators, the PPG Wave, Roland sequencers, and the Oberheim system.
I was pretty handy at demoing stuff. When Randy came in to buy some gear, he thought I sounded really good. He invited me down to his sessions and I ended up working on his whole album. Then, when he got the call from Miles, he learned that Miles wanted to do some more pop-oriented kind of stuff on Tutu. Randy asked me to be part of those sessions too. Miles was really intrigued by the whole thing. You have to remember that this is 1985. At this point, synthesizers are starting to sound really good. They no longer sound like wheezy organs or brittle. Miles felt that he could have a small group with a Gil Evans-style sound. He was interested in the clarity of the Yamaha DX7 sounds and the voice patches you could use with the Emulator and Akai samplers. Miles looked upon me as a young musician who could help make it happen. He also felt he could mold me into what he wanted, which he basically did. I became really comfortable creating soundscapes and spontaneous orchestrations. Eventually, Miles let me take a few solos, which was great. He thought I had a bit of zip in my playing and that’s how it started to develop.
What were the circumstances of your departure from the group?
I had been in the band for four years. The winds of change had been blowing several times. Miles always liked to move on to other players after awhile. I felt those winds, but I got offered an opportunity to do something completely different—go on tour with Michel Petrucciani. He really wanted me in his band and to make albums together. I was going to be a little more integral to what Michel was doing compared to Miles. With the Miles albums, I was mostly playing parts that Marcus Miller performed in the studio. With Michel, it was a really unique chance for a keyboard player like me to work with a piano player of that caliber.
Michel’s concept was to have a standard jazz piano format with synthesizer orchestration. It was just too interesting to pass up. It was really hard to leave Miles and I had a lot of second thoughts about it after. But I took the plunge and moved on in October 1989. I decided it was better that I make the move on my own. Now, I look back and see that Miles went down to one keyboard player after I left. So, that might have been an interesting opportunity if it had worked out for me. But It was good that I played with Michel and did something new. Until that point, the only major touring I had done, believe it or not, was with Miles. I knew I needed to do different things.
You also worked with Wayne Shorter. Reflect on your time with him and what it meant to you.
I played with Wayne for six months on his High Life tour in 1995. The album featured a full orchestra as a key part of the arrangements, along with a rhythm section, and piano and synths. Rachel Z worked with Wayne on the album, spending time at his house going through the orchestra parts and making MIDI models, and then playing piano on the album. It also included Marcus Miller on bass, who was also the producer, and Will Calhoun on drums. They needed a second keyboard player to help cover all the parts live, so Rachel recommended me. I had met Wayne several times before. He remembered me from Miles and we previously chatted a bit about sci-fi and comic books. I came home one afternoon and he was on my answering machine asking if I wanted to do the tour.
The gig was extremely difficult—probably the most difficult and dense pile of music I've ever had to learn for a long tour. Some of the charts were 18-pages long and the constant stream of incredibly thick keyboard voicings never let up. But even though the music was challenging, it also made perfect sense, and I eventually got the hang of it.
On the tour, Rachel played mostly piano and some synth while I covered most of the orchestral stuff on synths and samplers. The live line-up was Tracy Wormworth on bass, Will Calhoun on drums, Dave Gilmore on guitar, Frank Colon on percussion, and Wayne. We did a complete run of Europe and the US. The set list consisted of the whole High Life album and only one other tune, "Sanctuary," which I loved playing with him. There wasn't a whole lot of improv space for my role in the band, but that was fine with me. It was great just to play with Wayne and hang a little bit. Plus, we were attempting to stay close to the orchestral arrangements, which, in retrospect, was maybe not exactly what Wayne really wanted. I did attempt to add some squiggly Zawinul-type sounds, but I probably fell short on that front. The best part for me was hearing the endless variety of ideas pouring out of his horn every night.
I remember at one rehearsal we had just made it through an extremely difficult passage from "Milky Way Express," and we were all happy that we didn't botch it up. But then Wayne said "Okay, maybe somebody can do something in there." I think he wanted us to be more flexible with the material, but I admit I was at the top of my game just trying to play this stuff correctly.
At the end of the touring cycle, Wayne made some changes to the band and that was pretty much it for me. Only Dave Gilmore remained. I saw them play in New York later on, with Jim Beard as sole keyboard player, Rodney Holmes on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. There was no percussion. At that point, Wayne took a looser approach to the material. He had opened up the dense compositions and allowed for more improvisation from the rest of the band.
For me, it was a great experience just to inhabit his universe for a little while and tackle his music. I've never met anyone like Wayne before. He was definitely vibrating on a different frequency from the rest of us. His writing left a huge impression on me, of course, and I look at composition a bit differently now. I was really blown away by the density and, at the same time, the incredibly melodic quality of everything he does. I am still trying to wrap my head around "Midnight In Carlotta's Hair." What an amazing piece.
High Life was the most critically-savaged album of Shorter’s career. How did the brutal judgment of the jazz police affect him and the band?
The story of the High Life album as I understood it is Wayne wanted to make an orchestral album with Tony Williams—just him and Tony and a whole orchestra. Can you imagine? But the record company didn't want Wayne to go too far away from his Weather Report audience, so there was an attempt to sort of re-frame what Wayne had composed into a more contemporary jazz setting.
However, apart from the record label involvement, the music for High Life was dense and brilliant. Wayne composed and arranged for ages on that album, and Rachel Z helped Wayne with demos and assembling the whole thing, along with Miller.
The negativity from the jazz police started pretty early on. First, critical reaction to High Life was mixed. It was an ambitious project and I think it's possible that Wayne's original vision was compromised. Then everyone was upset that Wayne wasn't performing with an acoustic band. They didn't want to see a jazz-rock band performing an orchestral opus.
Sometime near the beginning of the tour, the music journalist Peter Watrous wrote a scathing review of the album in the New York Times. It was a really over-the-top negative review. I think Watrous had to deal with an angry backlash after that. I can understand if you don't like the record, but this was scorched earth-level criticism. It was very unfair and something that an artist like Wayne should never have to deal with. He basically wrote-off Wayne's orchestral work as lightweight pop.
We carried on and made jokes about it, but I think Wayne was pretty upset. He felt he was creating something that could really open up people's minds. That's what the High Life concept was all about—raising consciousness. But of course, the critics went in the opposite direction.
The audiences were great, but the specter of the jazz police loomed over the whole tour. We got through it, and we did have some great concerts and some good times, but after all that I think Wayne was ready for a change.
Tell me about the creative relationship you share with your wife Jane Getter.
Jane is always working on music at home. I make suggestions. Sometimes they’re not always welcome. [laughs] But some of my little ideas seep into her music. I might say “perhaps cut out eight bars here” or “you might want to jump to this part here.” When we get together with her band, I help her rehearse the music. If there’s a rhythmic thing that’s not working out, I might help to figure it out. Jane has her own harmonic concept. The majority of the nuts and bolts of the writing is all her. I’m able to help her realize it with live musicians. In the studio, I also assist her with the technical side of things.
Her new album On, with her group Jane Getter Premonition, is an all-star record with Chad Wackerman, Bryan Beller, Alex Skolnick, Theo Travis, and Corey Glover. It’s her strongest statement to date and we’re all really happy with it. She spent a long time writing this music. She really got it together well. I think our dynamic works well. We’re able to understand each other and work together effectively, which I hear is not necessarily the norm for husband-and-wife musical collaborations.
What are your recollections of working on Ray Manzarek’s Carmina Burana album from 1983 that was produced by Philip Glass?
I had my jazz-rock group The Fents at the time and we had a massive club following. We had a Frank Zappa-esque style of humor and always tried to have fun. Ray Manzarek was an old friend of the family and liked The Fents a lot. I was always honored when Ray would come see us play. At one point, he asked The Fents if we wanted to back him up for his Carmina Burana project. He wanted to do a rock version of it.
The process of working on it turned out to be tricky. It was produced by Philip Glass, but for a lot of the tracking, his assistant Kurt Munkacsi was involved. Kurt came from the New York art music scene and had a very clinical approach to recording. With Philip, they would lay everything down very carefully. But he was faced with this scruffy jazz-rock band from Los Angeles that’s used to a barnstorming approach.
Ray wanted to keep Philip and Kurt happy but also wanted the music to sound more alive. He was caught in the middle. After a couple of days of tracking, they decided to strip the band down and record each of us in layers. They turned the thing inside out and we ended up redoing a lot of the record. Then Philip finally arrived and the vibe changed instantly. He was like the hippest music professor you’d ever want to hang out with. I spent more time drinking coffee and hanging out with Philip than sitting in the booth.
The album turned out okay in the end, but like most records in the early ‘80s, there were a lot of record company politics and back and forth. When there was money at stake, it was rare for an artist to have a singular vision and see it all the way through.
Your father is Jac Holzman, the legendary founder of the Elektra and Nonesuch labels. What was it like to grow up with someone who was at the forefront of the music industry?
Seeing as I have nothing to compare it to, it seemed normal to me. [laughs] Growing up, I had a front row seat to see what happened within the upper echelon of the music business. When I was very young, The Doors would come over to our house for dinner. I remember being in first grade and getting all excited because I couldn’t wait to show Jim Morrison my room. He came over and I showed him my toy organ and tape recorder. He was really sweet and gave me tips about songwriting. I’ve heard all the stories about him over the years, but I hung out with Jim a number of times and he was always great to me.
When it was my eleventh birthday, I was home sick from school that day. My dad was at the Elektra office and Jim dropped by and asked “How’s Adam?” My Dad said “He’s doing good, but he’s home sick today and it happens to be his birthday.” That night, at 8 o’clock, there was a knock on our door. It was Jim with a birthday present for me. He gave me an instrument which was a combination of an autoharp and dulcimer. He showed me how to play it. It was very cool of him. I couldn’t believe it. I was 11 and the number one rock star in America dropped by to say happy birthday. It was pretty awesome.
What did your friends make of all of this?
The Doors were controversial at the time. My friends’ parents would always tell them negative stuff, so I was always defending the band. They’d say “Oh, I heard they did this and that.” I’d reply “Oh no, Jim’s a really nice guy.” I was an odd bird growing up. I was a bit of a nerd. I wasn’t good at sports. The friends of mine into the same things I was were impressed, of course. It would be a big deal when I’d take one of my buddies to the Elektra offices to hang out.
People like Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins and Richard Farina would come over to the house and crash out sometimes. My dad and mom would have parties. At the time, I didn’t know they were smoking weed. So, that was really unique. You have to remember the time period, too. I was growing up in the late ‘60s. It wasn’t common to have hip parents then. In the ‘70s, many more of my friends had hip parents. But in the ‘60s, we were living on the fringe of things. I grew up in Greenwich Village and then moved to Hollywood. In a way, I never grew up in America. I grew up in these freak show suburbs. It was my reality. I’d compare it to some of my friends sometimes and I’d realize it was a little bit out there.
I also grew up attending recording sessions and hanging out in the studio. I knew it was what I wanted to be involved with as well, but it looked to me like being a musician was more fun than being a record executive. So, I decided to become a musician at an early age. My big hero was Ray Manzarek. I started playing when I was eight.
How did your dad react to you wanting to pursue music?
He was supportive and always gave me little projects. He taught me some technical stuff. He was big on tape editing. He got me a little tape recorder and gave me a reel of songs and a list with a different order he wanted me to put them in. So, I was learning how to edit tape by spooling off one track onto a reel and then putting things in the right order. Those were the kinds of skills he passed on to me. He made me understand the criticality of the program order of a record. He was big on that. He taught me this trick which involved writing down the names of all the songs on the album, cutting them out on little pieces of paper, and shuffling them around until you have the right order. He would spend a lot of time on programming, and listening to mixes. He would bring home tapes. I would always stick my head in his office door and ask questions. Growing up, I picked up a lot by osmosis.
What did your dad say when you became Davis’ musical director?
I said my dad was supportive, but at the same time, he could be very critical, albeit in a loving way. I’d play him a tape of my group that I was excited about and he’d say “Great, but the material needs work.” [laughs] I’d get the full record company critique. It was never “Oh, that’s great son.” That was good. I learned from that.
By the time I got into Miles’ band, he was very proud and finally understood where I was coming from. It was a big turning point which was great for my general well-being. He’s also been following the whole Steven Wilson thing and been very encouraging. He came down and saw the band last year. He’s in his early eighties, so it’s a big deal for him to come to a concert. He watched the whole thing and came and hung out backstage. He really dug the show and is impressed with Steven. It was cool to see him interacting with Steven. I was very happy to still see that side of him.
Wilson is going against the grain of the music industry on multiple fronts. Your father must have felt something in common with him.
My dad said something to Steven that was really interesting. He said “Steven, in a way, you're doing what I did back in the day, which is forging your own universe and making it work.” I think your point is dead on. He sees some of Steven’s entrepreneurship and challenging the system and relates to it completely. He feels he had to jump through similar hoops as he was figuring things out for Elektra and Nonesuch. My dad is famous for saying “In the early days of the rock music business, no-one knew what they were doing. They were making it up as they went along.” Today, I think it’s the same kind of thing. There are so many limitations and roadblocks that the only way you’re going to get something happening is to be very creative and optimistic, and figure out new angles. My dad did that at one point and I think Steven is doing that now.
What’s your perspective on putting out music in the current, challenging state of the music business?
It’s definitely changed. I no longer get my hopes up for any release I’m putting out. I’m pessimistic about the music business, whereas before, I was hoping to make a big splash with my records. Now, it’s a more reasonable goal to just get my music out there so it’s not going to disappear and people can find it. The music business is now one-tenth the size it was in its heyday. Something that sells 10,000 copies now would have sold 100,000 20 years ago. The numbers are so different now.
For me, it’s now about documenting the music, being proud of the recordings, getting them out there, and hoping people will hear them. There was a long time when I kept thinking the jazz-rock thing is going to come back big time any day now. I’m no longer delusional. [laughs] There are a handful of groups that have broken through like Snarky Puppy, which is a great band. The ones that have made it happen are real bands that have stuck to their guns. If you go back a few decades to Pat Metheny and The Dixie Dregs, they also went against the grain and eventually forged their own scene. Steven Wilson is doing that too.
Great bands are what’s interesting. Today, a lot of jazz-rock albums are put out by single artists that work on a collection of songs, hire some hip musicians and put out the album. But it doesn’t have the same magic as a band that’s been out there killing themselves, honing their craft and then going into the studio and killing the record. It’s a different thing than a typical album made by a competent instrumentalist. It’s why for years my records were strictly band albums, even if they weren’t star-studded lineups. The band focus made the music stronger than a combination of musicians that have been put together in the studio for the first time. Even worse are those albums that you pick up, look at the back cover, and see a cavalcade of stars on it. You immediately know it was an email record. The reason why Snarky Puppy is filling up venues is because it’s a true band and there aren’t many of them around anymore.
Your 2010 jazz-rock album Spork is being reissued in a deluxe edition by Progressive Waves in Mexico. Reflect on the making of the album and what makes it special for you.
Spork is my most recent band album, even though it was recorded a few years ago. The guys featured on the record are from my working group, Brave New World. These are people I've been playing with for over 20 years now. It's hard to believe, actually. The band consists of Aaron Heick on sax, Mitch Stein on guitar, Freddy Cash, Jr. on bass, and Abe Fogle on drums.
The initial inspiration for Spork was, believe it or not, the 2007 Porcupine Tree EP Nil Recurring. This was before I met Steven. I was impressed with the band's compact approach to releasing four powerful songs and leaving it at that. I had about 35 minutes of material and was inspired to do something in a shorter format.
But after the basic tracks were recorded, I decided to add some solo electronic interludes, and the album expanded to about 45 minutes, which is about the same length as a normal LP from back in the day.
We made Spork on a micro budget, so I decided to go completely old school and record it live in the studio. When the band is together, things go much faster. It's also vibe-ier. I was able to get into Avatar in New York City, which is one of the best studios around. However, Avatar is not cheap, and I could only afford one long day there. I decided that recording for one day in a great studio is better than spending four days in a mediocre one, so we went in for a single marathon session.
All tracks and solos on Spork were recorded live and are first takes. There were only a few overdubs on the whole record. I did spend a lot of time mixing it though, with Jeff Jones.
I was pleased with the final result. I feel it's a pretty uncompromising and hard-hitting example of the band, and there are a few long-form pieces on there that I'm particularly happy with, like "Big Cheese" and "Equation."
For the new edition, I added a bonus track, "Amoeba," which also appears on Parallel Universe. The existing electronic interludes worked well on the original album, so I decided to include a longer one. The new version also includes some of my comic strips that I do as a hobby, printed on cool, little mini posters.
Do you have plans for a new jazz-rock project?
My plan is to make another jazz-rock record following the current touring cycle with Steven. I definitely want to do another group record. I might try a different format this time, like a core trio with special guests. I’ve typically had my albums reflect the current working band at the time, but I’m more open to trying different things going forward, using several different players. I feel after doing the electronic and solo piano albums that it’s important I follow them up with a blazing jazz-rock project with death-defying Moog solos. I’d also like it to have more of a rocky crunch.
What’s the key to keeping the jazz-rock format alive and fresh?
The key is simpler than most people realize and that’s good material. I think jazz-rock got boring for a lot of people because the songs weren’t great. If you look at the work of John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul, it’s all about fantastic writing. Once you take away the compositional element from jazz-rock, it’s just jamming. That can be interesting, and it’s cool to check out players and see how burning they are, but that doesn’t result in a record you’re going to go back to again and again. It’s not going to be a Birds of Fire by Mahavishnu Orchestra or Mysterious Traveler by Weather Report. I think Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Return to Forever are the core of jazz-rock. I think most of the stuff that came after them has been a footnote. Those guys represent the last truly creative, musician-inspired movement in jazz. Since then, jazz culture has taken a much more agenda-driven approach with retro stuff—those people trying to recapture the Blue Note years. I don’t get that at all. Even Miles used to say “I thought that’s what the records were for.”
I think you can make a case that after John Coltrane, the harmonic density became so thick that the only thing to do was make a lateral move and explore the sounds of the rock world. They were doing much more sonically interesting things in the ‘70s. When you go to those thicker, distorted and buzzy sounds, like on a Fender Rhodes, you have to economize your harmony and phrasing. That changed the style and simplified the harmony with the classic jazz-rock stuff. Audiences were also ready for it. By the early ‘70s, you had a large rock audience that knew what a solo was. That wasn’t necessarily the case previously. Since this period, most of the movements in jazz have been contrived. There are a few exceptions like M-Base, though.
How has your compositional approach evolved over over the years?
On some of my records like Manifesto, In a Loud Way and The Big Picture, the writing was denser. I had a lot more chord changes and much more involved chord structures. I’ve tried to pare it down and simplify the stuff I’m writing these days. I’m trying to have less going on, but ensure the ideas themselves are as strong as possible. Miles was an extreme example of that. He could have a hip bass line and almost a nursery rhyme of a melody, but that melody was so strong you could hang a 20-minute jam on it and still have it be valid. I’m not moving in that direction necessarily, but I’m trying to get to the point more. It’s actually easier to write all the complicated structures you want and put in a million chords than it is to write a really good song.
You refer to your output as “Optimistic music in the age of fear.” Tell me what you mean by that.
It’s a gonzo-esque quote I’ve attached to my projects and bands since the early ‘80s, starting with my jazz-rock group The Fents. What it means is that I play music that I want to play and it’s music that seems like the most fun to me. We live in a world in which people constantly say “You can’t do that” in many contexts. So, I boiled my perspective down to its essence. The “age of fear” part was initially meant in more of a ‘50s sci-fi comic book way, but after 9/11, it really did become the age of fear. Now, I feel music with a positive goal is really important to pursue in this age.