Free improvisation is the automatic writing, the abstract expressionism, or as British critic Ben Watson most aptly describes it, the “stand-up comedy” of musical performance. Real-time process takes priority over product, what you hear is what you get, and in hearing’s immediacy lies the promise of escaping, if temporarily, the rules and boring habits of received musical discourse. (Heckle, however, and risk your life.) Free improv is thus the royal road to artistic nirvana, and many believe 74-year-old British guitarist Derek Bailey to be the nonstyle’s perfect master. Hearing Bailey, trumpets Watson, “will shatter your world picture, and cause you to reconsider every fact about twentieth-century music—and artistic meaning, and politics, and class,” and so on. Free Improvisation, sporting Watson’s preferred capitalization, is modernist Marxism in action: “Bailey . . . was convinced that music is something to be played rather than marketed or even ‘enjoyed.’ ”
Bailey, an extremist’s extremist, is a marvel of extended techniques, perpetual novelty, and uncompromising theory. Hearing him in person is challenging, exciting, liberating, rigorous, and sometimes even, you know, fun. Yet there’s a Beckettian quality to his life and work, a sense of ascetic renunciation dating back to 1963, when he began working with drummer Tony Oxley and bassist-composer Gavin Bryars in the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, dedicated to music that was neither what he denounced as “whitey free jazz” nor “sensational” John Cageian “avantgarderie.” Previously, Bailey had made an increasingly successful living as a busy touring guitarist in hinterland dance halls before making a gradual segue into a strictly artistic career.”I just loved the fucking provinces,” he tells Watson in one of the many underedited interview transcriptions that comprise a good chunk of this tome.
While Bailey’s solo albums are small wonders of spring-wound nerve and microeconomic muscle memory, he believes that improvising, much like conversation, is most fruitfully practiced in the company of others. After Holbrooke he worked both solo and with collaborators such as pianist Anthony Braxton and saxophonist Steve Lacy, and for two years with the Music Improvising Company. Between 1977 and 1994, Bailey organized annual events called Company Weeks, which were devoted to re-arranging an invited assortment of free musicians—and eventually dancers, jazzbos, rockers, and turntablists—into promising ad hoc groupings. Watson describes each of these, often in lurid detail: “Manual tweaks and jolts that are literally local and private suddenly open up into cosmic infinitudes: music as sex.”
Watson credits John Zorn with introducing Bailey to America, although Bailey arguably played as large a part in legitimizing Zorn. Free improv may be intrinsically unmarketable, but Watson does his part by ignoring countless important players, such as Chris Cutler, Greg Goodman, Lukas Ligeti, the babbling brook outside my window, and the waves breaking on the beach. Say what you will about groove-based improvisation, but the Grateful Dead played more punter hours of free music than Bailey and Zorn multiplied.
“Anyone who talks about music today and ignores Free Improvisation is drivelling over a corpse,” whines Watson, whose worst flaw is an annoying polemical tic. “To anyone who uses their ears to evaluate modern music (that is, not that many), Company 5 makes a powerful case for Free Improvisation as the supreme method.” Don’t tell Kim Jong Il. Watson is a provocative critic with good ears and a knack for Englishing Bailey & Co.’s astounding sounds. But much of it reads like Watson’s own description of a Bailey solo: “a ceaseless ripple’n’roll over the same spot, like G.W.F. Hegel continually underlining the insufficiency of stand-alone, unmediated concepts.”