|An installment of OFN wouldn't be complete without at least one Derek Bailey review. The man has set standards for fecundity that are difficult to match in the community of free improvisation. Part of it stems from his almost clinical willingness to join nearly any setting of instruments in interplay. Add to this his belief that true improvisation can only be achieved amongst players who have never met before and who do not rely upon a prior knowledge of each other's musical tendencies. A healthy catalog of recordings documents his lengthy career as itinerant plectrist for hire. Where the chronicle comes up short is his formative years. Inceptive meetings with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and improvising trio Joseph Holbrooke have seen the light of day on various labels including Emanem and Bailey's own Incus imprint. Similarly, Bailey's early tenure as a jazz guitarist is a matter of historical record. But what was the process by which the guitarist transitioned from the latter to the former? The archival pieces on this recent Tzadik collection illuminate the period between these two phases and offer an engrossing glimpse of Bailey playing his own compositions. For most musicians such precedence probably carries little clout, but for Bailey, a man who's made it his life's work eschewing compositional forms in favor of extemporaneous improvisation, the salience of these sides becomes obvious.
Bailey's notes to the disc describe in passing the reason for his switch from jazz-based improvisation to the non-idiomatic style he would later develop to maturity. He admits to being heavily under the spell of Webern at the time of the recordings and recounts the regular stereo skirmishes he engaged in with his landlady, he spinning Webern works by Robert Castle and she retaliating with salvos of the Rolling Stones. Learning her reaction to Webern and listening to these sounds it's tempting to wonder what she thought of Bailey's own music making. Bailey negotiates the compositions and improvisations with an almost methodical earnestness. The initials "G.E.B." are those of Bailey's father and the dedicatory piece winds along a predisposed map that is almost lyrical in design, lacking the angular prickliness of later years. "Haught" is also replete with round edges and warm electricity as single-note shapes bleed into luminous chords and back again.
"Bits" and "Practising" sound more akin to modern Bailey, with sharp spikes of distortion and judicious application of volume pedal swells. Silence also serves as an active element, punctuating terse figures and floating single notes and adding to the sense of dynamic space. The pieces sound like a collage of ideas in various stages of development, as if Bailey is trying possibilities/techniques on for size in slow succession without the plan to string them together into a single entity. Two brief improvisations that close the set are highly instructive, but also have the feel of unfinished experiments. Considering the recordings were rescued from decades-old magnetic tape, the clarity of reproduction is quite passable with most of the nuances of the guitarist's amplified strings remaining easily audible. While sections of the pieces sound essentially like what they were—exercises designed by Bailey to hone his craft and chart his progress—there's also a large amount of the program that presents a musically cogent whole. As for filling in the gaps in Bailey's early oeuvre, the disc is indispensable.
Features private recordings from 1965-1966 of composed, solo pieces, written under the influence of serial composer Anton Webern.