Allan Holdsworth "Countdown" Intro, Transcription & Analysis
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
The analysis of this solo is based on laying the original “Countdown” changes on top of Allan’s solo and analyzing what he played using a more traditional (for lack of a better word) jazz harmony approach. I will say up front that I think Allan is mostly thinking about “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode” during most if not all of this improvisation. “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode of Limited Transposition” is a nine note symmetrical scale, that just so happens to be one of Allan’s favorite scales. I think it’s safe to assume this is where his head is here.
Interestingly, all the “V” chords and “I” chords of “Countdown or what's known as “Coltrane Changes”, can be found in this one scale. The scale in "C" is "C D Eb E Gb G Ab Bb B. " The triads, "Eb, Ab, B, E, G & C," are all present. If we take an "ii-V-I" in "C" and put in the “Coltrane” subs, "D7 Eb7 | AbMaj7 B7 | EMaj7 G7 | CMaj7," we can see all the "V" and "I" chords are present. I could just say he’s thinking about that mode, being cognizant of the changes, and just making it happen. But I’m way more analytical than that and that would make for a really short analysis.
I thought it would be interesting to take a more traditional jazz harmony approach and see what happens. I think the result really sheds some light on how much of the jazz language is actually in Allan’s playing and how influenced by the language and horn players, especially Coltrane, he actually was.
“I thought it might be interesting to try the horn because I found myself listening to a lot of saxophone players.” ~ Allan Holdsworth
“I soon purchased some records by John Coltrane, and this changed my whole life." "I just bought everything I could find that he was on." "There was some with Miles, and most of it was from the"Atlantic period." "Coltrane's Sound" is probably still my favorite recordings of all time.” ~Allan Holdsworth
“When Coltrane died, I cried for hours." "I felt like I knew him.” ~Allan Holdsworth
Whether it happened through osmosis, him listening to lots of music and/or jazz artists and absorbing the language orally or whether he painstakingly transcribed and analyzed it isn’t really the point and doesn’t really even matter. In the end, the language is there.
The contents of the corresponding "YouTube" video is just a glimpse into how I go about analyzing the transcriptions that I do so that I can make sense of what’s going on for MYSELF and then incorporate the ideas and language of my favorite players into my own playing. Two questions I get a lot are “What scales does Allan use?” & “What is he thinking?”. It would be great to be inside his head and know exactly how he thought about music but unfortunately, that isn't going to happen. It doesn’t really matter, though. The only thing that matters is that I can analyze it and make sense of it for MYSELF. In the end, it shouldn’t matter how I think about it either. All that matters is that YOU can analyze it in a way that makes sense to YOU, and that you can extract the language and incorporate that language into your own playing if that’s what YOU choose to do.
I believe Allan did this too. Again, whether through osmosis or through painstaking transcription, the jazz language and the influence of one of his favorite musicians, John Coltrane, ended up in his playing. All the greats have done this. "Bird" was influenced by "Count Basie", "Buster Smith" & others then pushed the boundaries to create what we know as “Bebop.” He didn’t create something from nothing. "Coltrane" was influenced by "Lester Young", "Bird" and others then pushed the boundaries to create what we know as “Hard-Bop”, “Free Jazz”, “Avant-garde”, “Post-Bop”, or whatever labels you want to use. He didn’t create something from nothing. Allan was clearly, by his own admission, heavily influenced by "Coltrane" and the language of "Coltrane" is very evident in his line playing, and not just in this solo.
Anyway, on with the breakdown... I could only put so much analysis on the transcription itself so I’m going to try and go a little more in-depth here. The original changes are above the staff just as they would be if we were looking at a lead sheet. The changes in parenthesis are the changes that are created based on the notes Allan plays. In my opinion, I think we get to see just what a genius he actually was and how aware of the changes he is, even when they’re not there.
I think the first few bars are pretty much coming from “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode” and there isn’t a lot to say other than that so I’m going to jump to bar 5. In this bar, Allan holds an “Eb.”The original chords in that measure are |D-7 Eb7|, so we can look at this as either generalizing this measure as Eb7 or we could look at “Eb” as the “b9 of D.” This would mean we can either choose to see this as what would be a very common substitution of D7b9 in place of the Dm7 or as a D Phrygian sound, which is one of the many minor scale choices available for an "m7" chord. Either way, "Eb" is the "b9" of "D" and the root of "Eb7" so these are just a few possible ways of making sense of it. Obviously, there are other ways to look at it but we have to make some choices and these are a few of the options.
"In measure 9" Allan lands on "Eb", the "3rd" of "Cm7." This a very strong and important chord tone and lets you know that Allan definitely knows where he is in the form. Jumping to measure 15, the original chord is "BbMaj7." Allan plays "Bb Phrygian" in this measure even though "Phrygian" is usually associated with minor chords. Playing it where the "BbMaj7" would be is a harmonic freedom a soloist is afforded when playing in a situation where there is no harmonic accompaniment. This could also be looked at as a "Bbsusb9" substitution, which gives a more modern sound than a "Major/Ionian" sound.
In measure 19 Allan lands on a "D#" which is the "9th" of "C#7." This extends the chord, is a great color tone and again, lets you know Allan knows where he is in the form.
In measure 20 we start getting into some good stuff and the jazz language starts to become more and more evident. The first line over "A7" is actually a pretty common “Digital Pattern.” The pattern is a "1 2 3 1" pattern. Allan starts it on the "3rd" of "A7" which gives us an important chord tone and two extensions, the "b5" and the "#5." The next chord in the original changes is "DMaj7." Allan plays the notes "D E F & Ab," which gives us the "Root," "9th," "b3rd" and the "b5." One way to look at this is as a "1 2 b3 b5" digital pattern over "DMaj7," giving us a "DMaj7#9#11."
In measure 21 the original chord is "DMaj7" and Allan seems to play some notes of the "G Dominant Bebop Scale” here. Again we have a few ways of looking at this. We could look at it as generalizing that measure as "Dm7," or we could analyze the notes being played against the "DMaj7" and see what it gives us. It would give us a "DMaj7" chord with a "9th," "#9" & an "11th," but seeing as the next chord is actually "Dm7" I’m looking at it as just generalizing that measure as "Dm7."
In measure 22 the chord is "Eb7." The first four notes Allan plays are "Eb E G Ab," the "Root," "b9," "3rd" & "4th" (or 11th). Again this gives us an "Ebsusb9" sound. The next chord is "AbMaj7" and Allan plays an "A major triad." This doesn’t make much sense unless we generalize this measure as "Eb7," in which case the "A major triad" would give us an "Eb7b9#11," making perfect sense. Allan then seems to arrive at the "AbMaj7" in the next bar. It is delayed by two beats this is called a “Bar-Line Shift” and can be found in countless jazz solos. A “Bar-Line Shift” is when an improviser arrives at a given chord late or early. The next chord "B7" is also delayed by two beats. The notes Allan plays over that chord give us a "B7b9#9." Allan seems to forgo the "EMaj7" altogether and goes right to the "G7" in the next bar. He plays this chord for an extra two beats. His note choice here gives us a "G7b9#9#5."
Allan seems to ignore the "CMaj7," and with two beats left in the measure starts playing an "Ebm" pentatonic scale. He generalizes the next two bars as "Ebm" pentatonic. This is called “Harmonic Generalization” and is when an improviser chooses one scale to accommodate two or more chords of a progression. Playing "Ebm" pentatonic over "Cm7" gives us the "b3," "b5," "#5," "b7" & the "b9." The two most important notes of "Cm7," the "b3rd" & "b7," are present. These notes define the chord. The other notes can just be considered "chromaticism" or “out” notes. Notes outside the given chord shouldn’t be a shocking thing to see in a jazz solo. Over "Db7" the "Ebm" pentatonic gives us the "9th", "4th" (or 11th), "5th," "6th" (or 13th) & the root. Playing a minor pentatonic up a whole step over a dominant chord is a good way to get all of the extensions of that chord.
So far it seems Allan is on top of his game. Over "GbMaj7" "Ebm" pentatonic would give us the "6th," "Root," "9th," "3rd" & "5th." Again, this gives us an important chord tone and some cool extensions. "Pentatonic" off the "6th" of a major chord is a great sound and gives you the color tones of the "9th" & "13th." I think Allan ignores the "Db" major chord and is most likely just thinking about the "F7" in the next bar. This is another “Bar-Line Shift”, an early rather than a late one. "Eb" minor pentatonic over "F7" gives us "7th," "b9," "#9," "4th" (or 11th) & the "#5" or "b13." Minor pentatonic down a whole step on a dominant chord gives us an important chord tone and some altered extensions, good stuff! Allan then lands on the "7th" of the "F7" in the next measure assuring you he knows exactly where he is and knows exactly what he is doing.
The next 3 & 1/2 bars I think Allan pretty much abandons the changes. He plays the notes "B D# G & G#." This is a "B" augmented triad with the additional note "G#" which is four of the six notes of the "B Augmented Scale.” The “Augmented Scale” can also be found inside of “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode” so I think it’s safe to assume this is where his head is. He then moves this same shape up a half-step, playing "C E G# & A," which is a "C" augmented triad with the additional note "A." This would give us four of the six notes from the "C Augmented Scale.” You could relate each one of these notes to the corresponding chord and end up with some crazy altered chords and/or substitutions if you really felt the need. But I think he’s just thinking about either the “Augmented Scale” or “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode” here. Holdsworth used the augmented scale & augmented triads a lot in his playing, as did Coltrane. They are a big part of the “Hard-Bop”/ “Post-Bop” language.
The next chord in the second half of measure 31 is "A7." Allan plays a "CMaj7" arpeggio here. Over the "A7" this would give us an "A9sus4#9" sound, or over an “A” bass note this would give us an "Am9" chord. Allan ends this phrase on "B" the "5th" of "Em7." Over the "F7" in the next bar, Allan plays the notes "Bb A & G#." These notes are the "4th," "3rd," "#9" & "#5" of "F7" creating an "F7sus4#5#9" sound. Over the next chord, "BbMaj7" Allan plays the "#11," "5th" and "3rd" creating a "BbMaj7#11" chord, nothing crazy happening there.
In measure 34 over the "Db7," Allan extends this chord by playing the "#5," "b9" & the natural "9." If we think of the "C" on the "&" of beat two in "measure 34" and the "Ab" on beat one of "measure 35" as being the "#11" & "9th" of "GbMaj7" and combine them with the rest of the notes in the measure we get a "GbMaj" chord with a "#11," natural "11," "6" (or 13th), "3rd," "#5" & "9th."
Allan seems to delay the "A7" in the next bar by one beat starting on the "&" of one. He then generalizes the rest of the bar as "A7," keeping it pretty straightforward harmonically in the first part of the bar. He then spices it up a little in the second half by playing the "9th," "4th," "#11" & "#9." He seems to also generalize the next bar as "DMaj9#11." The notes outside of the chord can just be considered "passing tones" or "chromaticism."
On the "&" of "beat 4," Allan plays "F#" which is the "#9" of the next chord, "Eb7." He then plays the notes "B" the "b5" of "Eb7" and "Eb" the root before landing on "Bb," which is the "9th" of the next chord "AbMaj7," giving us an "AbMaj9."
In the next two bars, he plays a "symmetrical sequence" moving in "fourths" giving us "AMaj7," "DMaj7" & "Gdim7." All of these chords can be found inside “Messiaen’s 3rd Mode” and again, this is one of Allan’s favorite scales. So I think it’s safe to assume this is what he's thinking. Not shocking in the least since this nine note "symmetrical scale" shows up a lot in his playing.
Well, that’s a wrap. There you have it an overly analyzed jazz harmony approach of a "Holdsworth" solo. I’m sure he would be horrified. Sorry, Allan.