Derek Bailey and Tony Coe: BBC Radio broadcast, April, 1979 (CDR)
Derek Bailey: guitar
Tony Coe: clarinet
When I first heard Derek Bailey, I really didn’t know what to think. Here was a guitar player who built an entire style around the plinks and plonks, thumps and scrapes, and “accidental” harmonics of the mis-fretted note. My first response was: “This guy can’t play!” But once I realized that these sounds were deliberately and expertly executed, I began to comprehend just what an amazing a guitar player he really was. Like the painter Cy Twombly, Bailey attained an adult mastery of lost childhood creativity, unbounded by society’s rules and rigid expectations. Also like Twombly, these childlike “marks” serve a deep and very personal expressivity. But what really amazes me about Bailey is that he could also play with any other musicians, in any genre, and sound perfectly at home and indubitably himself without sacrificing a smidgeon of his utterly unique sound.
I don’t know much about Tony Coe. He plays clarinet exclusively here and sounds really good. Let me tell you from first-hand experience, the clarinet is one of the most difficult instruments in the world to play well and Coe sounds masterful. His woody tone contrasts nicely with Bailey’s plucked and bent wires and they’re intently yet playfully interacting with one another. Coe’s note choices are definitely interesting, obviously informed by his “modern classical” background. Each of the pieces, according to the BBC announcer, is named after a street in New Orleans (“Bourbon,” “DuMain,” “LaFitte,” etc.) and Coe’s clarinet sound evokes a Dixieland feel, though, to be sure, this is angular and abstract music. Superb!
Too bad, but this not available in stores.
Fortunately, John Zorn’s Tzadik label has released a number of wonderful CDs over the past several years of Bailey playing in a variety of interesting settings. The place to start for anyone wishing to encounter Mr. Bailey’s guitar playing for the first time should be Ballads (2002), a solo guitar recording of hoary old jazz standards that is simply stunning. One listen and there can be no doubt that Bailey knows exactly what he is doing and his deconstruction of familiar tunes like “Laura,” Stella By Starlight,” and “Georgia On My Mind” clearly demonstrates his mastery of the instrument. Once you accept his premise, check out Bailey in a pure free-improvisation setting with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio: The Moat Recordings (originally recorded in 1999, reissued in complete form by Tzadik 2006): two CDs of incredibly inventive music with drummer Tony Oxley and bassist (and “classical” composer) Gavin Bryars. My favorite of the Tzadik releases (or at least the one I listen to most often) is Mirakle (2000), which combines Bailey’s singular electric guitar with the heavyweight funk rhythm section of Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass and Calvin Weston on drums. It shouldn’t work, but it does and it’s great fun. By the same token, Bailey’s collaboration with the Japanese noise band The Ruins (Saisoro (1995)) seems ridiculous, but is actually quite captivating. Again, Bailey is simply himself within a literally foreign context and creates something wholly unheard-of.
Tzadik has also issued Bailey’s last recordings on Carpal Tunnel (2006), which is as painful as its title. Be forewarned, this is not for the newbie or casual fan. Suffering from the above referenced disease, Bailey documented a course of re-learning the guitar in the form of an audio diary. The results are touchingly heroic, but ultimately hopeless and sad. It is a testimony to Bailey’s devotion to his art that he would struggle through a debilitating disease to continue playing the guitar, and perhaps given more time, he could have forged a new, new way of approaching the instrument. Alas, Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day, 2005 at the age of 75.