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Derek Bailey // Three Presences at Cafe Oto

John Eyles By

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He was a man who repelled pretension, refused to be shoehorned into comfortable categories, and played amazing guitar. —John Butcher
Simon H. Fell, Mark Wastell, Alex Ward
Derek Bailey // Three Presences
Cafe Oto
London
March 2, 2018

Many people will have done a double-take upon seeing this evening in the Café Oto programme. Over twelve years after the much-loved guitarist Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day 2005, he seemed to be listed as appearing at the venue. On reading the small print, it became clear that the trio IST (bassist Simon H. Fell, cellist Mark Wastell and harpist Rhodri Davies) and clarinetist-guitarist Alex Ward would be playing live on the evening; Bailey would be represented by "three presences"—renditions of some of his compositions, film of him in concert, and recordings of him with the late, great tap-dancer Will Gaines. Both IST and Ward knew Bailey well, having played with him countless times. (On the day, Rhodri Davies was stuck in Wales due to a blizzard plus a red warning not to travel, so IST consisted of just Fell plus Wastell.)

The concert opened with Ward playing five Bailey compositions for guitar, dating from the years 1966/7, the five having been chosen from some twenty-three such pieces found among Bailey's artefacts. In his opening comments on them, Fell alluded to Webern, serialism and flamenco, but added that Bailey increasingly used such pieces as starting points for improvisation. In his performance, Ward played each piece straight through from sheet music before also using them as the basis for improvisation. The end results were a pleasing amalgam of Bailey and Ward.

After the stage was reset, Ward on clarinet, Fell and Wastell on percussion performed a very different Bailey piece, With Apologies to G. Brecht. A text-based composition, the players were given several cards featuring instructions before performing. The piece mixed music and humour as the musicians interspersed improvised passages with performing manual tasks such as washing dishes or mopping the stage floor. Derek Bailey would have been smiling benignly at the performance.

After the interval, there were further reminders of Bailey's warm, good-natured sense of humour and penchant for chatting, with a showing of two previously-unseen David Reid films of him in concert, dating from September 2001 in London and April 2002 in Birmingham. As so often, Bailey informally took questions from and chatted to the audience while playing guitar, in a similar manner to this charming footage from NYC in 2001.

The evening closed with a performance which combined Fell and Wastell with randomly programmed fragments of both Bailey and/or Gaines performing solo. (It was entitled "Virtual Company," as the quintet of Bailey, Gaines, Fell, Wastell and Davies played together at various Company events in Britain, France and USA around the turn of the millennium.) The virtual nature of it meant that the recorded fragments were fixed while the playing of both Fell and Wastell altered in reaction to what they were hearing. Both being skillful improvisers with well-honed instincts, the bassist and cellist ensured that this set did approximate a quartet improvisation. But, sadly, none of us will ever see Bailey or Gaines improvise live again. Earlier in the evening, in conversation, Fell had said, "I really miss Derek. I still want to be playing with him."

Despite such occasional feelings of loss, this evening was a joyful celebration of Bailey and Gaines. It also marked the forthcoming release on Confront of a double CD recorded at a London gig by Bailey, Gaines, Fell and Wastell, Derek Bailey and Company—Klinker. On the evidence of the music heard during this evening, that album will be worth waiting for. Meanwhile, we have YouTube.

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