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Artist Profiles

In Memoriam: Derek Bailey

By Published: February 7, 2006
If not the very foundation, the Holbrooke trio was clearly one of the bases for the free improvisation movement that began to gain a commercial foothold in the 1970s. But Bailey wasn't one to take credit for starting a movement. Prior to Holbrooke, he had the occasional encounter with open improvisation, and speaking to Watson remembered an earlier experience, in Glasgow circa 1953: "Three guitars, Laurie [Steel], me and another guy individually retuned our guitars and ... played. The results? Can't remember. We didn't try it again. But that kind of exploratory episode, while uncommon, happened now and then, and my guess is that it has always happened. Nobody invented Free Improvisation.

During the explosion of music, jazz, rock and beyond, in the late '60s and early '70s—when corporate record labels had no idea what was going on and what might sell - a surprising breadth of records were being released. At that time, Bailey participated in a few major label sessions—notably Oxley's The Baptised Traveller (CBS, 1969) and 4 Compositions for Sextet (CBS, 1970). The new movement was getting noticed. Drummer John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble (with Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist Dave Holland) recorded for Island in 1968 and Marmalade in 1969. In 1970, the fledgling German label ECM released a record by the Music Improvisation Company, with Bailey, Parker, Hugh Davies (electronics), Jamie Muir (percussion) and Christine Jeffrey (vocals). But that same year, CBS dropped Oxley's third record, and he approached Bailey to start a label. They secured financial backing and invited Parker to be a third partner. In a split that created a rift in the British improv scene and has been the source of rumors and speculation ever since, Oxley and Parker left the label within a few years. Bailey kept the business running for the rest of his life, and while he was featured on many of the releases - more than 50 in all—Incus is more than a vanity label. With his wife Karen Brookman, Bailey built one of the most important labels documenting free music in Britain.

But more than his place in history as an innovator and label head, what was of course important about Derek Bailey was his playing. He was a remarkable solo performer, challenging the listener the way that few—perhaps only Cecil Taylor and Roscoe Mitchell—can, with overlaid systems of logic and trains of thought that are harder to understand the more one tries. His playing can't be analyzed, only absorbed. And yet, Bailey didn't like giving solo concerts. From Cain's interview:

"To me, the way I play is the musical equipment I bring to the event. The way I play is what I'm going to work with. But the music, for me, is brought by the other people. There isn't any point in playing with somebody unless they're going to bring music. I'm sometimes accused of ignoring people I play with, which has always struck me as strange, because I find other people very necessary. I don't, for instance, like playing solo, and I'm not that interested in playing solo - doing it or listening to it, or anything. Although most of the gigs I get are solo. I kind of feel that what I do is not complete unless I'm playing with somebody else. They do more than complete it, they provide the basis for whatever we're doing. It starts with the other people.

While it would be a mistake to think Bailey ignored the people he played with, it's an understandable one to make. Bailey didn't set out to compliment his fellow players, not in the usual sense. He circled them, questioned them and sometimes stabbed at them, and made the listener hear them in a very different light. In his Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation from 2004 (which, despite its Marxist polemics is crucial reading), Watson wrote, "Like a truly interesting conversationalist, Bailey's guitar-playing does not flatter the musicians he plays with, or attempt to make them sound good in a facile way: he attempts to understand what they are playing by contradicting them. ... The source of his 'spikiness' is this interest in repartee; his negations are productive because they are grounded in musical comprehension of his interlocutors' logic.

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