I can't remember the first time I heard British guitarist Derek Bailey, but I do remember being utterly perplexed at the arid, unsettling chaos his music seemed to present. A pioneer in the European free-improvisation scene of the late '60s and early '70s, Bailey was among the foremost proponents of a... style? genre? Okay, a territory of performance that took its formative leads from a potent mix of American free jazz and the experimental composition of John Cage and his peers.
Bailey combined a workmanlike ethic honed in British dance bands with a cussed revolutionary streak; the music he and early peers such as John Stevens, Tony Oxley, Evan Parker and Gavin Bryars created was the sound of spontaneous creation, unregulated by notions of structure or genre. In its ideal form, European free improvisation was -- and remains -- an instance of deep listening and fleet reaction, a musical conversation that unfolds in real time. Karyobin (Island, 1968; reissue Chronoscope 1993, likely out of print), by Stevens's Spontaneous Music Ensemble, provides a gracious, eminently listenable example of the movement's birth pangs, which would provide momentum for such Bailey collectives as Joseph Holbrooke (a trio with Oxley and Bryars, named for an obscure British composer of Wagnerian leanings) and the Music Improvisation Ensemble (with Parker, instrument-builder Hugh Davies and percussionist Jamie Muir -- the last of whom would shortly defect to King Crimson.)
Throughout his life, Bailey railed against complacency; when regular mates became too familiar, offering the easy path of rote response, Bailey responded with Company, a semi-regular meeting of performers from differing musical backgrounds, most of whom had never encountered one another. A fragmentary list of Company participants extends well beyond Fred Frith and John Zorn to take in Lee Konitz, Ursula Oppens, Don Byron, Diamanda Galas and veteran tap dancer Will Gaines. Practically to the very end of his life, Bailey continued to seek out new encounters: with jazz icon Tony Williams, with free-jazz percussionist Susie Ibarra, with pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen, with Japanese prog-punk duo Ruins and with a steady stream of young drum-and-bass DJs. A substantial portion of Bailey's activity, and that of his peers, was documented by Incus, the hardy little cottage label he founded with Parker and Oxley (of which he later became sole proprietor); many of those aforementioned later encounters, equally important, were captured on John Zorn's labels Avant and Tzadik.
But back to the beginning: While the kinetic excitement of Evan Parker's saxophone playing was immediately affecting, Bailey's crabbed chords, splintery lines, ringing sustained tones and glowering feedback washes took longer to assimilate. I don't remember the point at which it all fell into place for me, but I suspect it might have been a 1993 performance at Roulette with Gregg Bendian, Paul Plimley, Tomas Ulrich and others. It was my first time to actually see Bailey perform live -- and somehow the intensity of the setting, and the ability to connect sound to action and reflex, made the guitarist's work seem transparent, magisterial, inimitable. (Not that there haven't been imitators; in fact, I'd hazard to state that Bailey is probably the most influential guitarist of the late 20th century, after Jimi Hendrix -- at least in avant-garde circles.)
After that event, I became a Bailey fanatic, collecting probably more than 80 percent of his available recordings even as I acknowledged that his was an art best encountered live. Greater familiarity brought on an intense realization of just how much his art changed over the years, despite a similarity of surface contours. Those skittering figures and tolling tones amounted to a language, a distinctive personal utterance, as well defined and recognizable as that of any great musician in history -- whether it be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Anton Webern, Albert Ayler, Tony Iommi or Toshimaru Nakamura.
Bailey's final decade of recording presented evidence of a renewed appreciation of formal structure, certainly in a solo setting -- Drop Me Off at 96th (Scatter, 1995, out of print), for me the greatest of Bailey's solo albums, is as deftly balanced in terms of its weights and valences as any through-composed symphony. One performance on that disc, a funny example of Bailey's droll accompanied chats, included a brief snatch of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" -- incandescently shocking in context. That moment provided a precursor to Bailey's most controversial late recording, Ballads (Tzadik, 2002), in which John Zorn coaxed the guitarist to etch cubist takes on standard songs such as "Stella by Starlight," "Rockin' Chair" and "Gone with the Wind." It was with this disc that Bailey came full circle, transfiguring the material he might well have been called upon to play during his apprentice years.
Ballads wasn't Bailey's final studio document; at present, that would be Carpal Tunnel (Tzadik, 2005). Following some amount of inexplicable trepidation, I finally picked this up about two months ago. To call it perhaps Bailey's most painful record would be meaningless without some amount of explanation: The guitarist, who had moved to Barcelona for the last few years of his life, explains in a spoken introduction that he'd recently been diagnosed with the condition that lent the disc its title, and as a result could no longer play with a pick. Each of the subsequent selections tracks his convalesence, at two- to three-week intervals. It was a heroic effort, and not a bad record -- although Bailey's speaking voice had never sounded so utterly aged to my ears as in his intro.
Having attended the majority of Bailey's New York City appearances since that original 1993 encounter -- although not the epochal meeting with Cecil Taylor at Tonic in 2000, alas -- I'd been biding my time since May 2002 awaiting his next visit. Like everyone else, I'd long heard rumors of failing health. But after reading Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation (Verso, 2004), Ben Watson's alternatingly admirable and risible biography, I allowed myself the luxury of believing that Bailey would indeed return -- after all, many of the men in his family lived well into their 90s. Zorn apparently agreed with me; I know that he planned to have Bailey curate a month of performances at the Stone in 2006.
As it happened, carpal tunnel syndrome was an early manifestation of the motor neuron disease that claimed Bailey's life on Christmas morning
in Barcelona. That long-awaited reunion, I'm forced to admit, will never happen. And I just don't want to. Despite not knowing Bailey personally (though I've enjoyed several conversations with his longtime partner, Karen Brookman), despite having exchanged no more than two sentences with him, despite my hand having been engulfed in his massive paw only once, I miss him deeply, and sharply.
It's hard to know where to direct a newcomer curious about an artist as singular yet multifarious as Bailey -- not to mention one so vastly represented in the recording catalog. Were Drop Me Off at 96th still available, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to recommend that disc. Another oft-cited solo recital, Aida (Incus, 1980; reissued Dexter's Cigar, 1996), also appears to be out of print. Incus mail order might still have copies of both titles, but probably won't be available for at least a while, I'd have to imagine. LACE (Emanem, 1996) is another fine example of Bailey's solo art, while Fairly Early with Postscripts (Emanem, 1999) offers a valuable overview of early-'70s solo performances as well as a few more recent tracks.
But for my money, the richest recent example of solo Bailey is In Church, the first in a series of home-burned CD-R solo-guitar releases available exclusively from the Incus website. All the hallmarks of Bailey's questing art can be found in these two performances, recorded in resonant chapels in 1994 and 2001. So, too, are a patience, a warmth of feeling, a breadth of utterance and a quiet dignity that are all hallmarks of late Bailey.
Among Bailey's encounters with other musicians, The London Concert (Incus, 1975; reissued Psi 2005) is a crucial document of Bailey's relationship with Evan Parker, before it was sundered by business differences and personal animosity. Yankees (Celluloid/OAO, 1983; several reissues available) offers a spirited encounter with Zorn and trombonist George Lewis. Village Life (Incus, 1992), with drummer Louis Moholo and percussionist Thebe Lipere, is seldom cited as crucial Bailey, but I love its seductive sound world. Soho Suites (Incus, 1997) offers an illuminating pairing of duo concerts with percussionist Tony Oxley from 1977 and 1995, while Joseph Holbrooke '98 (Incus, 2000) is a highly successful latter-day reunion of Bailey's seminal trio with Oxley and Gavin Bryars. Two late intersections with different drummers, BIDS (Incus, 2002) with Susie Ibarra and Sevens (Incus, 2002) with Ingar Zach, are varied and always engaging. Of Bailey's later intersections with unlikely rhythm teams, all are intriguing, but the ones that most reward investigation are Saisoro (Tzadik, 1995), the first encounter with Ruins, and Mirakle (Tzadik, 2000), recorded with the muscular harmolodic-funk team of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and G. Calvin Weston. Finally, controversial or no, an exploration of Bailey's art can't be considered thorough without a dip into the abovementioned Ballads.
Despite my having gone on at length, I still feel that nothing I could write would be sufficient to truly honor Derek Bailey, nor to give voice to the deep and genuine void I feel at his loss. Here, then, is a list of additional resources for information on an unreplaceable artist.
John Fordham's heartfelt, informative obituary in the London Guardian.
Richard Shapiro's exhaustive Derek Bailey sessionography, housed on Stubley's site and still commanding despite not having been updated since November 2004.