(Photos by Hajo Mueller)
There is something to be said for a musician capable of consistently finding himself working in the presence of musical legends. Gary Husband (John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth, among others) is one of those people. So is Adam Holzman. Not many people can say they handled keyboard duties for Miles Davis AND Steven Wilson. Holzman is at the top of that list, and he stands alone.
This is not an accident. Holzman is a multi-dimensional musician more than capable of making his work stand out in just about any context. He first caught my attention in the mid-80’s, where he served as music director for Miles Davis. That band was focused mainly on songs from albums like Tutu and Amadla, which were largely pre-programmed studio efforts. Miles interacted with next to no one in the studio, causing the music to occasionally sound stiff and soulless. On stage, the songs were given new life, thanks to Holzman and the others on stage. Musicians with a jazz background often respond best to the actions of others on the bandstand, making what they play mesh with what they hear. Adam gave the band its center, keeping the sound on track while everything else swirled around him.
It was almost surprising to see this same keyboardist in a more progressive rock context when I noticed Holzman was handling keyboard duties for Steven Wilson. His playing was sublime, providing just the musical foil Wilson needed to bring his often epic-length pieces to life. On the album Hand. Cannot. Erase, Holzman and guitarist Guthrie Govan provided five minutes of some of my favorite music of all time in a tune called “Regret #9.” Serving as the tail end of a two-part suite that begins with a tune called “Home Invasion,” “Regret #9” provides a highly melodic Yang to the Yin of the first piece.
As is typical with me, the enjoyment of a band member’s work with an artist I admire leads me to explore the work of said sideman. Holzman has, of course, released several solo records. The latest of which, Truth Decay, is an absolute powerhouse of progressive fusion. Leading musicians like Nick Beggs on Chapman Stick, drummer Craig Blundell, and woodwind specialist Theo Travis among others, Holzman was able to take his music in fascinating directions time and time again.
Saying music is in Holzman’s blood is a bit of an understatement. He was born in New York City in 1958, and grew up in California. He is the son of Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records. Bands like The Doors, Leon Russell, and Dr. John had a major impact on teenage Adam, who had begun classical piano lessons at the age of 12. Before long, the door to progressive rock opened by way of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. From there it was a short walk to jazz by way of Chick Corea, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Billy Cobham. No doubt these influences play deeply into his musical approach.
Holzman was playing in the Big Leagues relatively quickly, it seems. The Doors came back into play by way of organist Ray Manzarek, who was leading a recording of Carmina Burana, an opera by Carl Orff being produced by Phillip Glass. Holzman played on this recording, then played with several groups before being recruited by singer Randy Hall. When Miles Davis recorded Tutu in 1985, Holzman was brought in to add keyboards, which led to him becoming the touring band’s second keyboardist for that particular tour. Holzman stayed with Miles for five years, taking over as Music Director in ’88, after Robert Irving left the band.
Holzman spent the first part of the 90’s working with artists as diverse as pianist Michel Petrucciani and R&B legend Chaka Khan. His first solo album, In a Loud Way (a nice wink at the Miles Davis classic In a Silent Way), made the scene in ’93. From there, Holzman has found himself working with a virtual laundry list of A-list musicians like saxopnhone legends Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington, Jr., as well as his own band called Brave New World. Steven Wilson came calling in 2011, where Holzman started touring with him on the Grace for Drowning tour, and he has been there ever since.
Holzman also enjoys the more intellectual side of music, having written a book called Creative Synthesizer Technique. Fellow intellectuals and musical tinkerers will no doubt enjoy combing through this work and learning more about their instrument than originally thought possible. It seems a natural fit to go alone with his intellectual demeanor and musical drive. These are good qualities for a teacher, which is a position Holzman also holds. That being said, he doesn’t strike one as a person that takes himself too seriously, even within the intense confines of his music.
From his home in New York City, Adam Holzman was kind enough to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: How are you being affected by the Coronavirus?
Adam Holzman: I guess the same way most musicians are being affected: tons of cancellations and no gigs on the horizon anytime soon. I am somewhat lucky because I am a part-time instructor at the New School University Jazz department, so I still have a little work happening. I can’t imagine what a single mom with a full-time job and three kids is going through. And tragically, we are losing a wave of important musicians to this thing. We are living through some of the strangest times. I am sure that the future will be dominated with tons of books and movies focusing on what we’re going through right now.
How do you define the Adam Holzman sound?
(Laughs) Not sure how to answer that. Do you mean my own solo and band projects? Or my keyboard approach?
For my band projects, I like to combine powerful grooves superimposed with interesting harmonies and melodies. I also like to bring in a sound design element, using wild sounds and textures. I am more interested in strong writing than endless riff-fests. My latest album, Truth Decay, is a good example of what I’m going for.
For my solo projects, anything goes! In the past few years I’ve done both a solo piano album (The Deform Variations) and an experimental electronic album (Parallel Universe). I’m not sure what’s coming next on the solo front. I’ve been getting more into modular synthesis lately, so I might do something really freaky!
As for my keyboard approach, I’m going for a mix of everything: part-playing, comping, and improvising; sound design and special effects; piano and synth soloing … trying to be spacey and funky at the same time!
What all are you currently working on?
I have been recording keyboard tracks for my wife Jane Getter’s upcoming project. That’s going to be a killer album! I’m also doing tracks for a project I’m working on with (bassist) Nick Beggs, plus (guitarist) Dave Kilminster’s new solo album. I played a ton of keys on a new album by a really good Russian band called Velcrocranes. Also tracks for Fire Garden, (guitarists) Randy McStine, Mark Papagno, Marcelo Paganini, the band Tiles, and a bunch of other folks. I’m on the recent No-Man project by Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson, Love You to Bits. I play an electric piano solo on the “Love You to Pieces” track. I also appear on the new Miles Davis archival release, Rubber Band.
I also am very happy to mention that I wrote a synthesizer instructional book, which was just published by Mel Bay, called Creative Synthesizer Technique. I was planning a solo synth tour to promote the book when everything got cancelled due to you-know-what.
What has been your all-time favorite musical moment?
Hmmmmm … do you mean performing or something else? I can’t really say “all-time,” but I will mention one particular memory while performing. I was playing with Miles Davis at an outdoor concert just outside the walls of the Old City, in Jerusalem. We were playing the song “Portia,” from the album Tutu. I looked across the stage and Miles was in his classic bent over position, playing beautifully, with the moon shining down behind him. I thought to myself, “Man, I will remember this forever …”
I also remember very clearly that first week of rehearsals with Steven for the Grace For Drowning tour. We had been rehearsing for a few days and it was already sounding great. We were playing the intense middle section of “Raider II” and I looked over at Steven and Marco (Minnemann, drummer) and Nick and thought, “this is where I want to be.”
You’ve had the privilege to work for two legends in their field. How do you contrast working with Steven Wilson as opposed to Miles Davis?
There are some differences and similarities. As far as differences, Steven’s arrangements and performances are much more planned out. With Miles, we sometimes didn’t even know the set list until he cued certain songs! Also with Miles, the main soloists were almost always the guitar and horn players. With Steven I have more solo space, which is fun.
But at the same time, both Miles and Steven are great band leaders in different ways. They both have similarly devoted followings, and there is the same kind of electricity in the air when they put on a concert.
Fans get a real kick out of your Sunday Funnies. How did that get started?
I have been drawing cartoons and comics almost my whole life. My current strip is something I fell into starting around the beginning of the Hand. Cannot. Erase tour. I decided to write (and draw) about something that comes naturally to me: complaining!
Drawing comics is a fun thing to do on the road, and a short comic is perfect for Facebook. I have published one compilation through Amazon, and I have enough stuff to put out a second one very soon.
What are you doing to amuse yourself when you’re not making music?
Besides drawing? Fooling around with the tech side of music, especially playing with my new Doepfer modular synth. Also, I’m a big sci-fi movie buff. This might sound really weird, but I’ve been studying truth functional propositional logic. It’s a great mind bender. Also, with our gym closed, I’ve been getting back into running, believe it or not. We have a beautiful park near us.
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