The Pros and Cons of Derek Bailey

In his illuminating book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, Derek Bailey explains the shift he made from guitarist of all trades to purely free improviser. To do so, he dumped traditional connections to devise a spiky, busy, atonal approach from the ground up. (I’d call it a style, but it’s really an anti-style.) Forget melodies, chords, or even tempo; in their stead, Bailey unleashes torrents of harmonics, microtones, clipped chords, chance dissonance, scurrying fretboard scrabbles, and a complete disregard for standard musicality. Hearing Derek for the first time, one might reasonably assume that he doesn’t know how to play guitar. I’ve been listening to him for about a decade now, and I’m still not able to shake the frequent impression of haphazard nihilism. In fact, my enthusiasm for one of the world’s boldest and most stubborn axe-men has been half-cautioned by the thought that his whole bag might one day be revealed as a hoax.

To put it generally, Bailey improvises texture, and if you inspect it closely, you’ll hear things that no one else has ever fingered on a guitar. What he does is often quite controlled, even if the musical logic isn’t obvious. I admire his dogged consistency, although this could also be a complaint, as he tends to sound the same from one partner and scenario to the next. At times disconnected from his surroundings, he purposely ignores pulse, melodic continuity, or anything that might contribute to a harmonious musical atmosphere. Ornery and maddening at worst, he can chug into a self-absorbed dead-end, and he may even tune while he plays, making you wonder if it’s all a put-on. At other times, Bailey is more flexible and accommodating, which leads to special, fleeting achievements. So one may vacillate on Bailey’s value, but at the core is a fearless diligence in inhabiting the moment.

One reason I take Bailey seriously is the comprehensive depth with which he wrote his Improvisation book. (Published by Da Capo Press.) Citing ragas, baroque, jazz, rock, and completely free music, Bailey admirably captures in words the mysterious processes of improvisation, assisted by interview excerpts from practitioners in all these areas. I agree with his notion of bebop as the “pedagogue’s delight,” but I disagree when he says that jazz basically exhausted itself by the 1960s. Much fresh terrain was discovered by the likes of Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, and other artists whose music demanded more than recycled licks. Some objections aside, I think Improvisation is an indispensable book, as it provides valuable insight into gray areas. It also indicates that Bailey was highly conscious of what he was doing as a free player and why he chose that avenue in the first place.

I first encountered Derek Bailey in his twilight phase of the 1990s. Eventually I got around to his early jaunts with Brotzmann, Bennink, etc., but the first DB title to hit my ears was The Sign of 4, a triple-disc set documenting late 1996 exploits of a symmetrical quartet: Bailey and Pat Metheny (guitars), Pat Wertico and Gregg Bendian (drums and percussion). Alternately a metallic roar and an acoustic sparkle, the music is spasmodically dangerous, although the thin recording flattens the group’s tonal depth. I don’t like the piercing distortion Metheny uses to cut through Bailey’s wall of noise, but his acoustic and guitar synth work is nice, and the drummers shake, rattle, and roll on a laundry list of objects. Certainly not recommended for Pat’s pop fans, though Bailey listeners might enjoy it. Good job on the Sherlock Holmes titles, too. A corollary recording is the Bailey-Bendian duet album Banter (rec. 1994), wherein Derek’s choked, dissonant chords and microtonal bends enhance the flurrying drums, vibraphone, bongos, dumbeg, etc. of Mr. Bendian.

Three late period trio albums really catch Derek in a good zone. The first is The Last Wave by a one-off trio named Arcana: Bailey on electric guitar, Bill Laswell on electric bass and F/X, and Tony Williams on drums. Bailey’s distorted shards, Laswell’s looming tones, and Tony’s urgent trappisms merge into a ferocious landscape that lays waste to just about anything that’s ever garnered the “kick-ass” description. The free passages mix suspense and ambush, from which intense beats may or may not develop. (For example, the punctuated shuffle episode of the first track, with Tony whacking hard and Derek’s scowling guitar.) The only questionable element is Laswell’s clumsy upper register fumbling on his 8-string bass, yet the majority of the record summons a compelling, nerve-wracking, check-six musical apocalypse. (There was a follow-up Arcana album, minus Bailey, plus other notables.)

Funnier and funkier than The Last Wave, the 1999 recording Mirakle matches Bailey with beat-meisters Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bass) and Calvin Weston (drums). Tacuma knew a thing or two about free playing from his prime time with Ornette Coleman, and along with Weston, he barrels valiantly against Derek’s aleatory sculptures. Every track on Mirakle includes at least one solid groove, such as the last several minutes of “Moment” or the sly bassline in the midst of “Present”. There’s a beautiful bit in “This Time” where Tacuma’s gentle rakes and Bailey’s pinprick harmonics actually sound poignant. Like Last Wave, Bailey plays up to the energy of a strong rhythm team that forces him to acknowledge the beat on occasion. The other notable element of these two albums is Derek’s distorted tone, with which he sustains notes much longer than he would in a quieter, more abstract situation.

Speaking of abstract, The Moat Recordings captures the 1998 reunion of the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, Bailey’s old 1960s combo with Gavin Bryars (bass) and Tony Oxley (percussion). In a chapter of Derek’s book, all three members reminisce on how this group with the red-herring moniker went from straight jazz to completely free playing in the space of a couple years. After breaking up circa 1966, Bailey and Oxley continued to play improvised music, while Bryars moved to modern classical composition. (I’ve heard a few of his later works; not bad if you’re in the mood for something luxuriously dour.) In 1998, the trio reunited, which led to fifteen well-recorded studio tracks on the two-disc Tzadik set (finally released in 2006). This music is very different from the above trio albums in that Bryars and Oxley share Bailey’s fragmented minimalism – heck, they devised this style together back in the day – and thus they putter free from linear concern. It may sound random on the surface, but several tracks reveal tight connections within the trio’s conversations. Derek alternates staccato electric guitar and prickly acoustic (sounding like a robotic spider repairing a pachinko machine), Gavin plays muted double-bass, sometimes bowed for harmonics, and Tony’s tool-shed batterie is subject to clattering, scraping, and punching, not a single measured meter in earshot. Granted, only diehards will get much out of this stuff, but I find it provocative in small doses.

The only Bailey album I’ve properly reviewed on this website is Ballads, because it is connected to jazz, and, well, it’s the only place I’ve heard him play recognizable phrases and chords. There are some unmentioned DB titles that never did much for me or that are of historical-only interest, like the archival Pieces for Guitar (also on Tzadik), which combines a few written sketches with home practice sessions. I’ve never recommended Bailey to anyone, because he’s so specialized – and free improv can be very esoteric anyway – but I can say that there are moments on the above albums where his playing generates more excitement than any orthodox guitarist could.

Derek Bailey died at the end of 2005 of motor neuron disease. One of his last albums, recorded under physical difficulty, was called Carpal Tunnel. I never heard it.

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