"Being musical director for Miles Davis meant that I was the first one who got yelled at!" Adam Holzman's life in music

The son of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, Adam has been around music for as long as he can remember, meeting the bands and artists who worked alongside his dad and learning how music was made. Following that introduction, it was through developing his own musical tastes, and discovering the world of prog that led him on his own musical career path. Now he talks to Prog about his childhood, working with Miles Davis, and his plans for the future.

Growing up around Elektra must have been amazing.

It was so cool meeting all these artists such as The Doors, Love and Judy Collins, and watching my dad work in the studio. A few times Arthur Lee took me zipping around in his sports car. Judy was almost part of the family. I think what I learned directly from growing up around Elektra was more the craft of record-making as opposed to the music business itself. My father would give me a reel of tape and tell me to change the order of the songs. So I learned how to edit and cut things up with a razor blade and reassemble it. I always loved the idea of making records.

Given that kind of upbringing, do you think it was inevitable that you’d become a musician?

Yes, although the more common outcome for someone with my kind of background is to go into the business side. Not many record company kids actually become musicians.

I learned from Miles Davis how to create something out of nothing.

What were you listening to when you first started playing as a young kid?

I loved The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, but then Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz come along. It was in ’72 or ’73 when I was about 14-15 years old. They weren’t called progressive rock bands then. They were called rock bands. What attracted me to them was that they had keyboard players who played a lot of shit.

So how did you find your way into jazz?

I got very much into Yes and it was a short hop from there to Mahavishnu Orchestra and then to Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. Then I started checking out Keith Jarrett and all the other stuff. Back then if you were into English progressive rock you still knew who Aretha Franklin was. There was an awareness of other genres and other styles which was important, but which has kind of been lost a little today. It’s very cool how Steven [Wilson], inspired by remixing the early King Crimson stuff, is incorporating a bit of a jazz sensibility back into progressive rock. In some of the longer solos on Sectarian and Raider II, Theo [Travis] and I were almost getting into a Jack Johnson kind of zone, and there’s bits of Mahavishnu here and there as well. How many rockers would risk adding that vibe to their music?

You played and recorded with Miles Davis for four years. What was that like?

Being musical director for Miles meant that I was the first one who got yelled at! [Laughs] No, seriously, he was pretty hilarious. He had a really dry sense of humour. Very sarcastic. At band rehearsals he’d have everyone cracking up. He was pretty specific about what he wanted. People have this impression that he would look at the band and say, “Make it more grey,” and we’d all know what he meant. No. That’s not how it was. He’d look over the bass and say, “Modulate here,” or, “Leave that note out.” He’d always have a little tape recorder with maybe something from Prince or someone and say, “Can you put this into the song?” or, “Listen to the brass part.” He was always talking about two-bar phrases.

What do you think you learned as a musician from working with Miles?

One of the biggest lessons you learn from working with Miles is what to leave out. I also learned from him how to create something out of nothing.

How did you come to join Steven Wilson’s group?

Jordan Rudess [keyboardist and Wilson collaborator] recommended me. I was already a fan of Porcupine Tree, so I was a pleased to go over to the UK to play with Steven.

This year you released The Deform Variations, 27 short piano improvisations recorded during the 2013 tour of The Raven That Refused To Sing. How did that come about?

It was suggested to me by Steven’s manager, who happened to be a Keith Jarrett fan. We were playing Deform To Form A Star and because it started with a piano solo by Jordan Rudess on the original record, it was a chance for me to do something radically different from day to day on the tour, being the sort of improv-based ‘jazz guy’ that I am. What was fun about it for me was seeing how far, and in how many different directions, I could take it. Sometimes it would go on a little bit longer but Steven was always cool with that.

Someone said to me that it’s hard to believe this album came out of a bunch of rock concerts and it’s true that a rock concert isn’t a format that’s conducive to long pianistic meditations. You really have to come in with something – it has to be exciting, go through a few changes, there should probably be a dazzling riff or two in there. Those are the things that are required for a spot like that in the context of a rock concert. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Aside from your ongoing work with Steven Wilson, what have you got lined up next?

I’m writing music for my next official band record for which I’ve got a lot of material, and I’m also maybe leaning towards an electric trio with special guests, something with a real hard edge on it. I’m also interested in doing something with public domain science fiction movies. There’s a lot of old, really cool movies now in the public domain and I want to use footage from those sci-fi movies and the music that I’m writing in some kind of combination.

See www.adamholzman.com for more information.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.