Blog of the AMM

James Wilson on Derek Bailey

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James Wilson of Music With My Insane Friend sent this as an email; Ben Watson read it out on his show “Late Lunch With Out To Lunch’; the AMM’s lapsteel player Paul Seacroft asked us to put it here, so we did …

I was listening to Wireforks [an improv album by two guitarists: Derek Bailey and Henry Kaiser ed.] today, and something that I have always noticed about Derek’s playing became even clearer. He doesn’t really change his “style” for anyone — his “way”, his “thing”, so to speak. Kaiser, from track to track, seems to explore different things, effects and techniques, even different instruments, while Derek just does what he does. The notion of “novelty” doesn’t seem to exist for Derek. It’s almost as if there are all these rooms with different musicians available, and Derek just pops in and does his thing. Derek seems less interested in the product, the outcome, than the improvising, the process. Kaiser seems fearful of being bogged down by repetition: “it’s the same thing again”. Maybe it’s also a concern for the product as a commodity, so he’s looking for different ways to do things from track to track. As if the audience is the major concern. Must keep them interested. Change it up here, do this there etc. Why? Derek just plays the way he does. With DJ Ninj and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, he just did his thing across whatever rhythmic cacophony they hurled at him. It wasn’t a problem, because he was far less interested in the end product, the recording, the CD, than what happens in the throws of the improvising. There is a recalcitrance in his playing that I love. An unwillingness to bend to anyone else’s idea of “music”-making. When I hear him playing with Jack Dejohnette, I hear a sophisticated jazz sensibility coming up against raw/authentic recalcitrant spontaneous music-making, as if to say, stuff your sophisticated elitist jazz sensibility and your reputations, I just want to improvise right now, here’s what I can and do do! Doo doo? Lumpy Gravy?
Once the audience becomes a concern then you’re not improvising freely, you’re involved in a whole other world of concern for what people might think, for money, livelihood, reputation etc..
When DJ Ninj comes on and Derek is raging over the top it is NOT what you expect to hear. It just isn’t. It is completely jarring and unexpected. And he maintains it. That’s that recalcitrance. Frank Zappa‘s guitar-playing had a similar recalcitrance (his overall output as well), though perhaps subtler. His playing, as Steve Vai suggests, is rooted in blues and R&B, but he has much else at his disposal, musically. But what he also seemed to have was an unwillingness to work or practice his own idiosyncrasies OUT of his playing. All those speech-influenced rhythms he plays, odd tuplets and lopsided rhythms which must have driven Vai and others mad when transcribing, are a product of his natural psyche and physiology. Tendencies that he saw as a bonus, as interesting, as possibilities necessary for music-making. He made use of those things because he saw music in them. They weren’t things to practice OUT in order to convince others you can play “properly” or with “good technique”. That’s the erect stiff middle finger of recalcitrance. Giving the bird to the Berkeley school and all those sophistiCATS, that jazz, fusion and classical music create, and even rock. Sophisticated musos often describe Zappa’s playing as lacking “good” technique. Pat Metheny is allowed to play crazy shit because everyone knows how good a conventional player he is. It’s his fall back position, his safety net. Zappa and Bailey both eschew that entirely, and it really offends some musos. Not only can they NOT hear the music in what Zappa and Bailey do, but they can’t tell if they can REALLY play or not (you know, normal music!). There’s no safety net. Perhaps it’s a more subtle recalcitrance with Frank and a little more overt with Derek, but I feel it. For me this recalcitrance is very political, in fact it’s revolutionary. To hold firm in their creative autonomy, no matter the forces around them trying to herd them into the same old same old. That’s the door, the entrance to the world of musical creativity, they’ve flung open for me. It’s a huge world of creativity, open and endless. SophistiCATS, on the other hand, slam that door shut in your face: those cursed hierarchies that get me down so much. A good friend wanted me to go see Pat Metheny recently, as he is touring, but I just can’t do it. He doesn’t make me feel good about my own creative worth. It’s as if he’s saying, I’m up here for a reason, and you’re down there watching me, and there ain’t nothing gonna bridge that gap. I reckon Marx was saying that gap is bullshit, a lie. Everyone should be able to access that creative place.
And their recalcitrance is not born of a juvenile teenage-type rebellion, erratic and wild, only to be easily tamed and domesticated in older age. It comes from a deeply-rooted place, intuitive yet informed, significant, meaningful (with humour intact) — and far harder for others to budge.

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