Derek Bailey (left) and Jamie Muir at the ICA, London, 1981
Two vinyl reissues find Derek Bailey alone and in a rare duo recording with King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. By Andy Hamilton
Derek Bailey Aida Honest Jon’s 2xLP Derek Bailey & Jamie Muir Dart Drug Honest Jon’s LP Some musical figures enjoy a steadily growing reputation after their death. Like pianist Bill Evans, his near contemporary and fellow lover of the American Songbook, Derek Bailey exercises an increasing influence in his musical domain. No doubt the arch-sceptic that Bailey was would have been bemused. Both figures developed a new language for their instruments, exploiting previously neglected parameters – Evans’s (touch) has become canonical, but Bailey’s (timbre) has left a narrower, less understood legacy.
Viennese atonal composer Anton Webern isn’t a familiar figure in the pages of jazz and improv histories. But Bailey, with fellow free improv pioneer John Stevens, became obsessed with Webern’s techniques for varying timbre, known as klangfarbenmelodie (literally, sound-colourmelody) – Bailey also followed Webern in using extreme dissonance, such as tritones and flat 9ths. Undermining diatonic harmony, he created a new freedom of pitch relations based on the string’s natural sonic, vibrating properties.
So Webern had an improbable influence on a new guitar language, involving command of harmonics – one that avoided a uniform tone by playing the same note in different places on the guitar, and in different ways, articulated with virtuosic precision in dazzling runs. Acute control of dynamics as well as timbre was involved. On electric guitar – strictly, semi-acoustic guitar with a magnetic pick-up but hollow body, because to my knowledge Bailey didn’t play solid body electric after the end of his commercial career – he used a volume pedal to produce extreme dynamic changes within rapid sequences of notes. Depending on the equipment, this could also involve a stereo effect. But his resources were essentially those of a dance band and jazz guitarist of the late 1950s.
Bailey’s example was essential for the work of Fred Frith, Elliott Sharp, Bill Frisell, John Russell – and Mary Halvorson, who has commented, “I love Derek Bailey.” Bailey’s lifelong commitment to completely improvised music had a more pervasive influence, including through his book Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music. That influence is recognised but the reason behind it less so – Derek Bailey is a complex figure, and timbral and dynamic variation is key to understanding what he’s doing.
Electric guitar isn’t relevant to these recordings, which as far as I can tell are all acoustic – but a similar analysis applies. Aida’s 1980 release on Incus consisted of two live recordings from Paris and London earlier that year. This first vinyl reissue adds two previously unreleased performances for Charles Fox’s BBC Radio 3 Jazz In Britain show from the same year. Given that the acoustic guitar doesn’t sustain like an electric, a nonstop flow of new material seemed even more imperative – and as part of his timbral technique, Bailey had great facility in finding the same pitch on different strings, as a stopped tone or a harmonic.
For his acoustic playing, Bailey used a 1936 Epiphone Triumph, a large guitar with a large sound. It’s debatable that semi-acoustic guitar and electronic devices afford more timbral variation than large acoustic guitar – as Bailey devotee Steve Beresford comments, “The problem with electronic devices is that they all sound electronic.” Jon Rose recognises the importance of timbre on acoustic guitar, but finds the acoustic Bailey “simpler… clear and spacious – mostly monophonic”. That’s not the impression I get from these intricate recordings .
True, Aida’s opening track “Paris” has some swinging rhythms that could only come from a one-time jazz player. But this is music of great timbral and dynamic complexity, despite Bailey’s quite extensive if laconic commentary on the BBC set. “You may have noticed a certain lack of variety,” he jokes, releasing a furious volley. “Stringent economies are taking place at the BBC… And I shall be playing the whole of this broadcast on my own.” “Here’s Charles Fox, and the explanations,” he concludes. Listeners of my generation owe a huge debt to BBC presenter Fox (1921–91), who by his heroic, almost singlehanded efforts allowed listeners outside London to catch some of the most radical music of the day.
Some of Bailey’s most rewarding albums were duos with percussionists – Han Bennink, John Stevens, Tony Oxley. But even among these, Dart Drug with Jamie Muir stands out. Recorded and released on Incus in 1981, and reissued on CD in 1994, it’s one of the few recordings made by the percussionist after he officially retired from music in 1973 – to study Buddhism, then become a painter. He first recorded with Bailey as part of The Music Improvisation Company in 1969–70, with Evan Parker, Hugh Davies and Christine Jeffrey. He then joined King Crimson, remaining for a year and appearing on Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973).
It’s a challenging yet strikingly beautiful recording – a stunning display of Muir’s artistry, which matches the guitarist’s rather percussive approach. Muir’s unique kit includes bells, gongs, chimes, woodblocks and many sound sources hard to determine – peeling masking tape, maybe, or scraping saucepan lids across a brick wall. As he commented in an interview: “I much prefer junk shops to antique shops… in an antique shop – it’s all been found already; whereas in a junk shop it’s only been collected.” On the title track, Muir becomes very insistent and eventually riotous, though even here, the duo’s textural synergy is palpable and uncanny – at a beautiful moment some 15 minutes in, his tuned percussion merges hauntingly with Bailey’s guitar strokes. There’s a coda of hieratic sparseness and simplicity.
In an interview, Muir commented sadly that “Derek Bailey dragged me back into group improvised music. I didn’t really want to get involved… It was all pretty unenjoyable… apart from a few gigs with Evan Parker and Barry Guy.” But it’s even sadder that someone who helped create Dart Drug and Music Improvisation Company could just give all that up. Maybe he’s a great painter – but it’s unlikely he’s a greater painter than he was a musician. For those who want or think they ought to get into Derek Bailey, Dart Drug is an ideal place to start.
72 | The Wire | Soundcheck | The Boomerang