December 29, 2006

Now Playing: Derek Bailey

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.



Anonymous said...

Excellent post on Derek Bailey! I definitely need to snag that Byars/Oxley disc based on the bit you played for me. I love "Ballads." The Ruins stuff is cool too. At some point I'll get around to burning my old ECM LP of Music Improvisation Company...haven't checxked that out in a while. What I've been digging mostly lately in terms of Bailey is his work with Brotzmann on those early FMPs like "Nipples" and "More Nipples." Oh, and the Globe Unity Orchestra stuff on Atavistic as well. So much great stuff, and that's all just late '60s!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post, Rodger. I had no idea of who this was. I downloaded Ballads and Pieces for Guitar from eMusic. (Don't hate me because I use an iPod; with kids and work and school, much of my listening is very late at night ... which is active listening anyway.) Ballads is, as you say, really beautiful and indeed demonstrates that he "knows what he is doing." Pieces for Guitar is like Henry Cow meets John Cage. Really amazing and strange stuff. Thanks for the eyeopener.

Rodger Coleman said...

How cool that I prompted you to check out "Ballads" and I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I've never heard of "Pieces for Guitar" - please tell me more about it. Bailey made about a million records.

Re: The i-Pod, it is obviously a useful device whose time has come. I just wish the record labels would embrace (or at least make available) lossless rather than exclusively lossy data files. After all, bandwidth and storage limitations are no longer an issue. I also wish they'd embrace (or at least make available) high-resolution formats rather than exclusively low-resolution formats for the online delivery of music. It's not like it's technologically unfeasible.

I don't hate you, I hate the record industry!

I'm curious - what did you pay to download an entire album? Are they mp3 or somthing else?


Anonymous said...

They are mp3 ... and eMusic is really good about quality. They also have a pretty amazing selection, which is why I joined. My most recent purchase before Bailey was Cosmic Slop. Wild!

I love my iPod. I abandoned those miserable little ear buds instantly and got a sweet pair of Sony noise-canceling headphones that sound fabulous. I also have a bunch of concerts loaded on the thing because I love to watch the video as well (Neil Young Heart of Gold is a favorite).

I'm still trying to get my head around Bailey. I'm pretty far removed from avant-garde these days so it is a shift for me. I think it was good to hear Ballads before anything else though, just to know where he is coming from.