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Remembering Derek Bailey

I was thinking it’s odd that I can’t remember my first exposure to Derek Bailey’s music.  But then, I only got it in increments.  For me, his music’s like a Zen koan or a riddle, only revealing itself as you develop capacity for it.

I first read Bailey’s seminal book Improvisation as a 20 year-old transfer student studying English.  The Glenn G. Bartle Library at Binghamton University had a copy.  I was young for my age in many ways, but my listening diet was eccentric—American jazz from 1955 to 1970, mainly.  Despite that sophistication, my focus was adolescent: technique, running changes, harmonic athletics.  I didn’t like Improvisation at all—all esoteric and off-point—and pretty much useless to me at the time. (The library had another book about chord changes, one that I could use.)

I had been a practicing guitarist for around eight years, playing flashy rock leads.  After getting more and more ambitious, I eventually overdid everything and burnt out.  Then came the jazz, a deeper, private, subtler music.  I became an aspiring jazz guitar player.  That never worked out—or at least not in the way I wanted it to.  My brain didn’t do well with the harmonic grids that jazz is built on, and though I practiced like mad, I could never really develop the skill.  (A fact that didn’t stop me from indulging in marathon public displays of sub-par jazz solos, unfortunately.)

Eight or nine years later, I experienced another major burnout.  I put down the guitar for nearly a year, but started to open my listening.  I started moving in different directions: progressive rock, pop, psychedelia, electronic music, noise (what have you), and improv.  I’m not sure what the first Bailey album was that I heard.  But from whatever reading I was doing, I knew that he was a spectrum-end, that he had his own music, that it was difficult—and that some people weren’t even sure it was music.  This was the sort of experience I was after.

A couple of years later, I started writing for a few publications.  Reviewing music was a good way to sort out my thoughts, hear different albums, and join in a community that was into the same things.  I was practicing tentatively again.  I wrote a review of two Bailey discs, Ballads and Pieces for Guitar, for the Winter 2003 issue of Signal To Noise—a review that’s bugged me since, because it was only after I had written it that I discovered his playing in a way that makes my criticism of “garden variety chord voicings” and “conservatively played melodies” stand out as what it was: beside the point.

I can probably pinpoint exactly when that discovery happened.

I heard Derek Bailey in person and met him briefly only once, on Friday, April 11, 2003.  He was playing in duet with Cyro Baptista at Tonic in New York City.  I think I saw the first set, at 8 PM, because it was light out waiting in line.

I went in and took a seat.  At some point, a somewhat tall, older gentleman with neatly combed white hair seated himself unceremoniously on the stage, picked up the guitar, and started plucking out unmistakable silvery shards.

Baptista didn’t join Bailey right away.  My impression was that it went from guitar warm-up to gig without the percussionist knowing about it.  Baptista scrambled up.  They were playing for a while, and Bailey didn’t seem to be paying attention to him at all, looking preoccupied with his strings.  Baptista was perceptibly making an effort to engage Bailey, mostly by answering phrases or paying careful attention to the guitarist’s lead… He looked anxious moving from instrument to instrument—as if he wasn’t finding what he was looking for, settling for variety and movement.  I started to feel agitated and increasingly disappointed, fearing what I had been hearing on records was just a figment of my imagination.  I thought the performance was unimpressive—it felt almost embarrassing, being witness to these unmatched, non-overlapping private moments on the stage.  Certainly, at the least, I thought I had to be catching an off night.

But at some point, after I had probably given up and closed off, little things started to happen.  Little synchronicities, electricities would spark or open or whatever it is that they do.  They were odd little moments, sonic intelligences that weren’t corralled and branded by either player.  They wouldn’t hold onto them at all.  Maybe some more searching would follow such a moment, but after the first one happened, the room was different.  Bailey and Baptista were different.  I was different.  It was an education in an instant, an epiphany.

The set finished after an hour or so, rather spectacularly, if quietly—in a very good way really.  I was buzzing.  Bailey was wiping down his guitar, if I remember, no show business to him at all.  When he was done, he stepped down from the stage and started slowly to move away from it, toward the back of the room, toward the bar.  He was looking around a little, peering through the strong lights near the stage.

I approached him, and he had a very pleasant, down-to-earth presence.  He actually stepped or leaned toward me slightly, instead of giving me the mild lean-back that I would unconsciously expect.  I introduced myself, trying to detect if there was any recognition—the Ballads review had come out and I was already conscious of my mistake.  (I don’t think there was any.)  I started telling or asking him, blabbering a little, about the moments—those little events that I had seen, wanting him to confirm that they were real, maybe.  As I was talking, he looked at me quizzically, head tilted down and toward me.  When I stopped, he paused and made some kind of thinking sound, thanked me, smiled, and after a beat said, “I think it’s all in the company you keep”, with something of a wink.  We had another couple of pleasant words, and he excused himself to the bar.  He had good timing.

Things are great for me now.  I’m engaged to be married, happy and healthy, and after a lot of hard work, mastering a solo guitar album.  I just turned in a list of the ten records that most interested me in 2005 to One Final Note (Bailey’s Carpal Tunnel among them) and will be taking a break from writing for a while to concentrate on a busy year of planning and devoting more of what spare time I have to practicing.

It was while drinking morning coffee and trawling a music message board on Monday the 26th that I read, Subject: Derek Bailey Died?  A sick feeling.  Thinking the boards are sometimes, often, wrong.  Source seemed reliable.  Didn’t want to look up anything further.  And then the message came from Scott Hreha later in the day.

I must have thought Derek Bailey was too tough and hardy (and maybe too superhuman) to actually die, at least in my lifetime.  It just seems crazy.  I feel how I imagine people must have felt when they heard Coltrane died.

Listening to the records is too much right now—I put on Carpal Tunnel on Monday morning and had to take it off.  Part of it was that the monologue of the first track was too personal, but then so was the playing, which is like a photograph, or a voice, or a fingerprint.

First thoughts on a world without Derek Bailey…

I heard on Boxing Day that Derek Bailey had died the day before… and I still can’t quite believe it. Yes, he was 75 years old. Yes, he had been suffering from motor neuron disease. And yes, we all have to die some time. But… Bailey long ago acquired the status of an elder statesman of improvised music, an avuncular figure regarded with awe, reverence, and affection, even love; the kind of person who you feel will be there forever. Without Bailey, much of the music covered on One Final Note would not simply exist or would be radically different.

No, “elder statesman” doesn’t do justice to Bailey; elder statesmen rest on their laurels, relying on former glories for their status, the complete opposite of Bailey. He was one of the key architects of free improvisation in the mid 60s. The Spontaneous Music Ensemble—including Bailey, Barry Guy, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler—was vital in defining free improvisation (“improv”) as distinctly different from free jazz. Later, through his Company weeks, he established the then revolutionary idea that musicians from vastly different traditions could come together and just play, an ethos that has been hugely influential ever since. However, he kept on pushing and exploring, taking improv to undreamt of places. Consider this diversity: the 80-plus Bailey albums released in the past decade include a quartet with Pat Metheny, a funk trio with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston, a supergroup trio with Bill Laswell and Tony Williams, duos with Portuguese piccolo player Carlos Bechegas, Ukranian-American bandura player Julian Kytasty, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, and hoofer Will Gaines, a drum’n’bass album with D.J. Ninj, a solo album of ballads, and another of guitar plus poetry. He never rested on his laurels!

Where I live, in Hackney, east London, Derek Bailey is a local hero. Originally from Sheffield, he lived in Hackney for decades, running Incus—the label he set up in 1970 with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley—from his home in Downs Road. Bailey played live in London comparatively rarely. Occasionally, he would jet off round the world to play. The rest of the time he mainly played at home, always happy to welcome visiting musicians from near or far to pop in and play with him, sometimes to record. (Whoever has the Herculean task of making sense of Bailey’s archive of recordings is in for a rare treat; his house is full of tapes, some decades old.)

Thinking of Bailey evokes many musical memories, stimulating, funny or poignant... at the old Vortex, playing along to a tape of a South African township band… playing solo, giving wise, insightful but wry, self-deprecating commentary that helped you see the world through his eyes… any Company Week, most amusingly Bailey playing with U.S. guitarist Buckethead, wearing a mask and flat cap, a guise that gently mocked Buckethead but himself more so… at a pizzeria ‘round the corner from his home, in a duo with John Stevens, two masters defining the pithy essence of improv…

Words can’t do him justice. Instead, why not follow this link, listen to the ad for his beloved Incus, with the great man himself, his dry wit and his amazing guitar: http://www.incusrecords.force9.co.uk/xadvert.htm