Derek Bailey

Music and Dance


Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass


The first music must have been improvised, and the practice of improvisation has been integral to music ever since. Traces of it can even be found in the Western classical tradition, which is mainly an elaborate monument to the notion that the purest music is written on paper, not sounded aloud. But freely improvised music as a distinct genre is pretty new, dating from the early 60s. Its genesis lies in free jazz, which began as a revolt against the straitjacket of bebop. In England and Europe free jazz inspired musicians whose own training lay outside jazz; their particular brand of free playing incorporated the sonorities of 20th-century classical music while rejecting the notion that musicians were mere extensions of the composer’s pen. Mavericks like Evan Parker, John Stevens, Han Bennink, and the group AMM played intensely interactive music that explored timbre and texture and avoided melody and predictable rhythms. Each developed his own instrumental vocabulary, but they shared a resolve to avoid playing anything obvious or familiar.

Now, after three and a half decades, a genre devoted to avoiding cliches has given birth to a few of its own; there are free groups and players whose sounds and styles are as defined and predictable as the most hidebound classical music or hard bop. English guitarist Derek Bailey, one of free music’s originators and leading exponents, must know this, and on two recently released CDs he shows that one way to escape stasis is by, in a manner of speaking, learning to dance.

Bailey was born in 1930 in Sheffield, where he grew up mesmerized by the sounds of American jazz and an uncle’s guitar. From the late 40s to the mid-60s he worked as a professional guitarist in dance bands, jazz combos, and recording studios. He worked his way to the top of the pool of English session musicians, backing household names like Paul Anka, Manfred Mann, and Count Basie, but during the late 60s he fell in with the groups Joseph Holbrooke (Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars) and the Music Improvisation Company (which included Parker) and began to perform completely improvised music. Bailey’s style is fluid but intentionally disjointed, with constantly shifting rhythms and drastic changes of timbre and pitch. It can be spare almost to the point of absence, letting a lone harmonic ring until it decays, or formidably dense, full of crabbed chordal runs and frantic single-note flurries.

His immense discography is completely devoted to freely improvised music–and he quite literally wrote the book on the topic. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo Press, 1980, 1992) subsequently became the basis of a BBC television series. He has also spurred free music’s growth by founding and operating the Incus record label and by organizing Company, a rotating-cast ensemble of improvisers that held week-long convocations nearly every year between 1976 and 1994.

Since the Music Improvisation Company disbanded in 1971, Bailey has played in both solo and ensemble situations. In his book he explains that he began performing alone in order to test his musical vocabulary, “to find out what was wrong with it and what was not wrong with it.” But in an interview published in John Corbett’s Extended Play (Duke University Press, 1994) Bailey opined that the opportunity to play with lots of different people was one of the best things about improvised music: “It seems to me that if you’re working in this field it’s one of the sources of replenishment. It is for me, anyway. I’m so bereft of ideas of my own, perhaps, that I need to feed off other people….In this music, that’s almost part of your material, what other people play.”

Music and Dance was recorded in July 1980, but until it was issued this year on CD it had only been available in an edition of 200 privately released cassettes. It documents two duets, each about 27 minutes long, by Bailey, playing acoustic guitar, and Butoh dancer Min Tanaka. Butoh began as a stylized form of social protest in Japan 30 years ago; its performances are abstract, rigorous events that often occur in unusual locations–Tanaka has danced on glaciers, under bridges, and on traffic islands. Music and Dance’s encounters transpire in an abandoned iron forge. The album is a field recording; the occasional rumble of traffic and the distant cries of children evoke a specific sense of place and time. That effect is reinforced six minutes into the first piece, “Rain Dance,” when a torrential downpour first beats on the roof and then pours through onto the forge’s floor.

At the beginning of “Rain Dance” Bailey plays stark, elongated notes. Tanaka’s presence is barely audible; the thump and shuffle of his feet on the wooden floor sounds random. But he nonetheless has quite an impact on the guitarist’s playing. The dancer’s nearly silent contributions give his partner limitless latitude; here Bailey’s playing tends more toward extremes of sparseness and aggression than it does on another solo recording from the same time, Aida. At times Bailey raps on the instrument’s body or wrenches sudden squeaks from damped strings. Elsewhere he’s more restrained: on “Saturday Dance,” the other piece, he spends over a minute sounding a single tone by making the guitar microphone feed back. A whirring hum reverberates against the forge’s walls, punctuated by Tanaka’s echoed steps.

On Music and Dance Bailey faced a blank slate; on Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass, recorded 15 years later, he confronts quite the opposite: preprogrammed beats from an English jungle DJ. Bailey first heard jungle, the style of electronic dance music that also goes by the less racially charged appellation of drum ‘n’ bass, in 1993 on pirate radio. He was drawn to the live quality of the broadcasts and to the superhuman pace of the beats, which contrasts markedly with the deliberate rate at which much improvised music develops, and began playing along with the radio when he practiced. In September 1995 he went into Bill Laswell’s studio in New York and recorded a set of his improvisations–this time on electric guitar–to a tape prepared by DJ Ninj.

A few jungle enthusiasts have told me they hate this album because Ninj’s beats are generic and dated. “Formula,” says one, “gets old more quickly in the world of dance music.” But Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass is an extremely atypical disc for Bailey. He’s recorded numerous duets with percussionists, but not one of them has played in straight time. The very idea would doubtless offend many improv fundamentalists, but that’s what makes Ninj’s tape such an inspiring improvisational framework. The percussive onslaught of “DNJBB (cake-mix)” brings out the latent linear qualities in Bailey’s playing; he sends jagged, gurgling chords and gnarled knots of notes sailing over the programmed clatter, sounding almost like a rock guitarist extemporizing over a riff. On “NINJ (de-mix)” he intricately laces the stuttering snare-beats with shimmering harmonics. Throughout the album Bailey successfully adapts his distinctive instrumental language to a foreign environment, and his playing is so lively that I imagine he had one hell of a good time doing it.

That sense of delight isn’t a by-product but a desired outcome, an audible manifestation of the play in playing. And it’s just as evident on Music and Dance, in the guitarist’s long moments of quiet and ferocious moments of abstraction. Both Ninj and Tanaka challenge Bailey in ways that no member of the free-improv community ever has–and therein lies the next challenge for the free-improv community.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.