The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, January 08, 2006


"The problem with records…I’m just speaking personally, I don’t mean as a general problem. Nobody has problems with records, people love records! The whole of people’s listening lives is built around records if I understand it right. But it’s all endgame – it introduces the endgame to something that is for me primarily not about endgames. It collects it and says that’s the end of that. And there is no end as far as I’m concerned."
(Derek Bailey, Invisible Jukebox, The Wire, December 1998)

The problem, of course, is that all games must one day end, in concurrence with the ending of the gameplayer’s life; and when the artist is gone, records are all that are left to remember him by, to remind us that once the artist existed. That is, records and memories - if you were ever fortunate enough to see Derek Bailey in live performance, as I was dozens of times, you would recognise that, in his case at least, records in themselves were never quite enough.

No musician insisted so emphatically and unbreakably on the indivisibility of music and life as Derek Bailey. Many consider him the most radical figure in music of the last half-century, but in many ways he was also the most conservative in that he saw the function of music as it was perhaps originally intended – that is, a natural development from conversation and interaction between humans, a shorthand for complex emotional expression for which words and gestures alone weren’t sufficient, a way of relating to another human being, the formation of human networks of symbiotic equality; in other words, music as the ideal framework for the perfect socialist society.

With the form of improvised music – music free of any preconceived melodic, harmonic or rhythmic content, free of consideration of any other genres of music, free from stifling forethought of any kind save the knowledge of the improviser’s own emotional and technical resources – which Bailey pretty much invented (in conjunction with the drummer Tony Oxley and bassist/future composer Gavin Bryars, in the mid-‘60s Sheffield group the Joseph Holbrooke Trio), the listener is invited to contemplate what exactly is meant by music, what people think of when they decide to talk to each other or play music with each other. If music arises from societal interaction, then when does conversation end and music begin – and does there have to be a boundary? In the world of improvised music, the chatter and groundwork are more important than whatever end product emerges. Deflected by definition from being archived, improvised music compels the notion of nowness as no other form of music can do. When musicians improvise, it is what is happening in real time that matters, the electricity between musicians, the tiny gesture by one player which may eventually ignite a collective explosion, even the room temperature, the clinking of glasses in the pub next door, persistently coughing spectators – all are crucial contributory factors.

And, as deliberate freedom from melodic content and bar lines does not presuppose absolute freedom, for the wilful bypassing of structure is a structure in itself, so improvised music must allow for periods of boredom, of trivia, of practical jokes, of raspberries and jibes. Some improvisations do no more than pass the time of day, for no more is demanded of it or by it. It is the experience of life and interaction which the improviser gradually gains through years, decades of commitment to improvised music which makes the best improvisers’ music so cumulatively powerful, and so inseparable from their actual lives.

There is no need to document Derek Bailey’s history exhaustively here, as Ben Watson has already done so – and in the nick of time, as it turned out – in his exhaustive, exhausting, scurrilous, passionate, unstinting, contradictory, partisan, hilarious biography/manifesto Derek Bailey And The Story Of Free Improvisation. Suffice to say here that he was a guitarist, but such a description already traduces him, for he was unassumingly much more than that – guru, philosopher, facilitator, comedian. If his death has had a similar effect on me as that of John Peel, then it is to do with the fact that both were people of my parents’ generation, born in the thirties, both of whom had lived a lifetime before coming to their individual conclusions. So if Bailey had little time for psychedelia or punk, this was because he had already pre-empted and out-radicalised them with musical tools and approaches learned, not from rock, but from the twenty or so years he spent as an itinerant danceband and session guitarist, more or less in the pre-rock mainstream of popular music (among the people whom he encountered and/or accompanied during this period were Count Basie, Gracie Fields, the Supremes and Morecambe and Wise), learning and playing standards, having to sight-read or improvise arrangements on the turn of a dime. From the orchestra pit in the ABC Theatre in Blackpool he would watch Morecambe and Wise at work, observe how they would progressively pare down their routines every night to their essence, depending on how many laughs they got (and it is rumoured that Zappa and Beefheart fan Eric Morecambe sometimes attended improv gigs incognito, i.e. sans spectacles). But he was also a theoretical devotee of Webern and Cage – just how much he learned from Webern’s tactics can be gleaned by listening to 1967’s Pieces For Guitar, not released until 2003, on Tzadik, a record which conclusively proves that Bailey was coming from somewhere. On the ‘60s BBC comedy series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, which involved future members of Monty Python and the Goodies, Bailey was one of Dave Lee’s "boys" in the backing band, and when Bill Oddie called for some "freak outs," Bailey’s plangent, acidic guitar tones are instantly recognisable (and this was a mainstream comedy show, let it be remembered, which was unafraid to use gags about a "felonious monk" or an "ornate coalman" and got immediate, knowing laughs from the audience).

From 1969 onwards he stopped all session work and devoted himself almost exclusively to improvised music for the next 36 years. By then he was already a seasoned veteran of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and had started to establish lifelong relationships with numerous musicians on the Continent, principally in Holland and Germany, as well as continuing his multiple conversations with the key British improvisers of the age. In 1971 Bailey, in conjunction with Oxley and Evan Parker, formed Incus Records to try to document the music as thoroughly as possible – even though Bailey saw documentation of improvised music as absolute anathema, he also saw records as a necessary evil from which he could make a living; and most of the records which he released remain compulsive listening.

By the mid-‘70s, however, Bailey was principally improvising as a soloist, which meant that his performances and records now came across more as diary entries than conversations as such. In order to regenerate the latter he set up Company in 1977, which many obituarists have already declared may be his single most important achievement, although Bailey would have been the first to blanche at the word "achievement." The purpose of Company was essentially to convene various musicians from different areas of improvisation (or even musicians who didn’t improvise), put them together, work out different groupings in which they could play, and then perform and see what happened. But this wasn’t the schoolboy pick ‘n’ mix ethos which Bill Laswell would later adopt; Bailey brought specific musicians together for specific reasons. Sometimes the music worked and a lot of other times it tiptoed into insignificance. The framework, however, was the important thing. As the years went by, the compass expanded to include performance artists, tap-dancers, laptop conceptualists, rockists, classicists, and sometimes Bailey did not feel the need to perform himself. Like Diaghilev, he assembled different and diverse ingredients to create a new recipe; unlike Diaghilev, the world did not immediately explode at what he had made – with improvised music, the long-term effects were submucosal; gradually and invisibly seeping its way into the mainstream, and systematically changing it, in tiny crenellated notches.

One Company regular, John Zorn, then attended to the task of turning Bailey into the most extraordinary and unlikely post-rock star of ‘90s music. During that decade Bailey recorded a series of albums in collaboration with what was, even for him, a bizarre array of other musicians; with Ornette’s Prime Time rhythm section of Jamalaadeem Tacuma and Calvin Weston (Mirakle: Tzadik, 1999), with Japanese post-punk duo the Ruins (Saisoro by "Derek and the Ruins": Tzadik, 1994), with Laswell and Tony Williams (The Last Wave by "Arcana": DIW, 1995), and, most notoriously if not most successfully, with Birmingham’s DJ Ninj (guitar, drums ‘n’ bass: Avant, 1995). In more cautious hands such exercises would have been nothing more than a chic avant-equivalent to Tom Jones’ Reload, but Bailey makes them work, even if only by doing his own thing despite what the others are doing around him.

More important, though, were his long-term relationships with individual musicians. The 1995 2CD set Soho Suites is the best document of his work with Oxley; a 1977 gig in Soho, London, with Oxley on electronic drumkit and Bailey on tender, thoughtful guitar, coupled with a 1995 gig in Soho, NYC, with Oxley on standard traps and Bailey on shockingly aggressive, rancorous turned-up-to-11 electric guitar. And of course there is also Bailey’s unforgettable and unworldly contributions to Oxley’s landmark 1969 quintet album The Baptised Traveller (the exact recorded moment where British jazz stops being jazz and becomes improv). On Charlie Mariano’s "Stone Garden," Bailey punctuates what would otherwise be a standard post-Coltrane free-modal piece with pedal-delay notes, overtones and scrabbles which are deeply distressing and not only seem to come from another planet (his solo at the end is scarcely a "solo" as any "jazz fan" would know it) but also expresses more genuine mourning and dislocation than anything the rest of the group appears to be doing (though note that rhythmically Bailey and Oxley are working in tandem all the way through the piece’s 17 minutes).

His other great drum association was with the Dutchman Han Bennink. Apt to throw drumsticks into the audience, stomp around the stage and play paradiddles on the floor, or to pick up a stray clarinet, banjo, violin or trombone and perform a soulful, out-of-tune rendition of "Violets For Your Furs" or "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," the relationship is not easily translatable to record, but the lijm album released on ICP in 1969 (which alas has yet to resurface on CD) accomplishes it brilliantly with an unyieldingly ferocious recital which still sounds fuck-you radical today. Hearing Bailey’s howling guitar thrashing against the white-haired waves of Bennink’s phenomenal drumming and hammering, it’s no surprise that he scarcely raised an eyebrow at the onset of the Sex Pistols.

Saxophonists were more problematic. Bailey came to distrust them, principally because he felt they took every opportunity to "put their balls on show" rather than contribute meaningfully to a collaborative discussion, though he did make exceptions; Steve Lacy, on whose brilliant Saxophone Special + (1973-4) album (Emanem, 1998) Bailey demonstrates just how gleefully disruptive he could be in a "jazz" context (his explosive solo on the tango "Flakes," for instance, indicates that maybe Carla Bley should have engaged his services from time to time) but also (in tandem with synth operative Michel Waisvisz) go on to create something new; beneath the saxophone quartet of Lacy, Steve Potts, Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, they create an "electronic rhythm section" which not only foresees the Aphex/Mu-Zik nexus of ‘90s electronica but also what Bailey would get up to in Limescale three decades hence. And there was also Lee Konitz, a participant in the first recorded "free jazz" improvisations, Lennie Tristano’s "Intuition" and "Digression," who had played superb bebop with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio when visiting Manchester in 1966, and whom Bailey asked back to participate (memorably and crucially) in Company Week 1987; and Konitz devotee Anthony Braxton, who raved about Bailey in the early ‘70s when no other American musician would and with whom Bailey recorded a series of memorable duet albums.

But there was also Evan Parker; maybe the greatest musical partner that Bailey ever had, but their relationship was also by far the most difficult, and by the time of their acrimonious parting of the ways in 1987 they had drifted so far apart, ideologically and otherwise (from Bailey’s perspective, at least), that this rift was never to be healed. Listening to their inimitably spiky interplay, whether in the context of the SME (the fast-track delicacy of 1968’s Karyobin still strikes me as Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall on Pro-Plus), or in the alien electrified jungles of the Music Improvisation Company, or simply alone together (as on the recently reissued 1975 London Concert), makes this all the more regrettable, and not simply because Bailey and Parker were, to me as a boy, idols in the way that David Bowie or George Best were idols to others – people I one day hoped to be.

However, Bailey kept on not resting virtually until the end. In hindsight it’s easy to view 2002’s Ballads album – where he revisited the danceband standards of his youth – as a last will and testament ("Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone" indeed), but this discounts the astonishing Limescale album of 2003 which – for a music which had supposedly drifted so far away from jazz – miraculously found ways to unite the old (Tony Bevan’s bass sax and Alex Ward’s clarinet virtually take us back to the days of "Dippermouth Blues") and the New (the Drenching-Pleasure dictaphone-brick interface. Are they horns? Are they the rhythm section? Why, they’re there!) in a funny, uproarious and genuinely radical way.

By then Bailey had retreated from Hackney Downs to Barcelona for an all-too-brief Indian summer. Despite his comments in interviews about the thumb going, which he attributed to ageing but which we now know were symptomatic from the Lou Gehrig’s disease which eventually claimed his life on Christmas Day, he remained at work, and there are two final records to consider – the solo Carpal Tunnel, whose delicate, reluctant pluckings sound like the last of Pauline Oliveros’ oil drops echoing into the unreachable inner crust of the Earth; but also The Gospel Record, an album of gospel tunes with American electronicist Dennis Palmer and vocalist Amy Denio. He was summing life up as comprehensively as he wished to continue it. He felt it was good to talk, and that music couldn’t be arrived at without talking (in later life he took to issuing homemade CD-Rs, available on request). And he also demonstrated, passionately (if needled) but unobtrusively, that there really were no boundaries to what we think and do every day and how we choose to express it in art – the only boundaries being placed by those who wish to control thought, to corral it into convenient bitesized, elementary Heinz baby food, to not annoy "demographics," to imply that the listener can never be anything more than a consumer, that a listener cannot put something of themselves – their own lives and emotions – into a piece of music and therefore make it matter, make it mean something. The key question which arises from the Invisible Jukebox interview quoted at the beginning of this piece is not whether Bailey knew any of the records which he was played, but whether they were worth knowing. Nevertheless, is it going too far to suggest that without what Derek Bailey started in 1966, there would be no Xenomania today, would have been no Art of Noise in 1983, no Morley, no me? Possibly I would need a much longer and much less scrutable article to get to the middle of that, never mind its bottom.

But perhaps the best way to sign off with Derek Bailey – one of the key musicians of the last hundred years, and the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a musical hero – is to recall my own favourite of the nearly 200 records which he made, Aida, recorded in 1980 and released in 1982, and containing three pieces in tribute to the Japanese music promoter Aida Aquinax, who died in 1978 aged just 32. The side-long title track is a desolate landscape of mourning ("An Echo in Another’s Mind" as another track title puts it) with strange overlays of folk-song (in places it isn’t that far away from Bert Jansch or Martin Carthy). But, in the audience, after about nineteen minutes, someone’s watch alarm starts going off. Bailey picks a few more quizzical chords before calling a halt. "Well, that’ll do for the first side," he quips to laughs and applause. The question is, now that he himself has gone, who has the stature and adventure to do side two.

"Finished, it’s finished, it’s nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause.) Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. (Pause.) I can’t be punished any more. (Pause.) I’ll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. (Pause.)"
(Clov, from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame)

Some other records
I don’t want to go into too much of a discography here, since there is a comprehensive one in Ben’s book, and nearly every one of these records is worth having. But Epiphany/Epiphanies (Incus, 1985), the record of the 1982 Company Week, is vital, if only for the astonishing closing trio improvisation between Bailey, Akio Suzuki and Moto Yoshizawa which I heard in person and which opened up new horizons for improvised music which have yet to be breached or followed through. The monumental 3CD set by the early ‘70s trio of Bailey, Paul Rutherford and Barry Guy, Iskra 1903 (Emanem) is urgent listening for those who want to know where Jamie Reid and the Manics might have got a few of their conceptual ideas. The solo Domestic and Public Pieces (Emanem) from 1975 contains a large proportion of talking from Bailey, on topics ranging from middle-aged male impotence to "jamming" with Oscar Peterson by switching the TV on, as well as "Unity Theatre," the astonishing Brit-improv answer to Howlin’ Wolf’s "Natchez Burnin’." In Whose Tradition? (Emanem, 1988) demonstrates that Ballads was not a wholly new idea, as he contemplates Thatcherism while strumming "You Go To My Head." Finally, two trio sets: Yankees (CellulOid, 1983) with John Zorn and George Lewis is bright, sparkly and spiky; and And (Rectangle, 2000) is a stormy, demonic session which best documents Bailey’s relationship with the Oxford school of improv, in tandem with Steve Noble and Pat Thomas.

Did Derek Bailey know my father?
Bailey did shore up in Glasgow for a brief, impoverished period in the early ‘50s, and did a few gigs while there, but my father didn’t recall him; they eventually did meet at the first Company gig at the ICA in 1977 (with Parker, Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill) and promptly talked the hind legs off each other, reminiscing about Wardell Gray, Charlie Christian and other great musicians who were alive before rock and roll.

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