|Recorded in London on August 7, 2002.
The community of free improvisation is full of ad hoc assemblages – groups that meet, make music and disperse into fresh combinations. In fact, that’s Derek Bailey’s preferred method of music making. By his estimation, repeat meetings breed familiarity, which in turn stifles spontaneity, something his style of playing thrives on. Fortunately it’s not a hard and fast rule for the British guitarist, making this reunion with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad possible. The pair first collaborated on a handful of concerts back in 1992, the last of which was recorded and found release as Hello, Goodbye, also on Emanem. Nearly a D continues the story at Bailey’s London flat this past summer, minus the presence of now-deceased drummer John Stevens.
The disc begins suddenly with “Bells”, as Gjerstad’s slippery clarinet overtones shaping sonic smoke rings that drape Bailey’s brittle volume-pedal strums. Thorny and ornery meets lubricious and diffusive as the pair butts tonal heads and in so doing creates an unexpectedly compatible conference of disparate sounds. In its later stages the improvisation begins to fray along its margins with Bailey resorting to swollen nettlesome scrapes interspersed with more detailed picking and Gjerstad adjusting his tone from a willowy rasp to shrill-pitched screaking. The follow-up “Stairs” resets any lost focus as the Norwegian hoists his customary alto saxophone and the Englishman responds with more pointed commentary from coldly amplified frets. Streaks of pedal-derived distortion crop up at various junctures, prompting Gjerstad to once again flatten and coarsen his tone through arid flurries. Bailey’s barnacle-crusted strums puncture holes in the saxophonist’s elongated lines and once again the interplay threatens to unravel into isolate individualism.
It’s back to licorice stick and acoustic guitar for “Studio” as Gjerstad spits out a near continuous stream of crinkled reed glossolalia and Bailey once again carves things up from behind tautly strung strings. Only near the close does Gjerstad’s tone expand into something approximating the traditional clarinet sound. “A Cup of Tea,” so named for Bailey’s spoken offering to his mate at the track’s close, opens at a fast and furious pace and rarely lets up for its densely packed duration. Bailey lays the distortion thick in sections and Gjerstad only rarely removes his reed from his mouth, setting up a near continuous barrage of knotted note streamers that take a surprisingly near-lyrical turn in the track’s closing minute.
The banter that begins “Nearly a D” amusingly explains the disc’s title as Gjerstad employs an e-flat clarinet that is “so old it has become a D clarinet, well nearly a D…” The wide, woody tone he extricates acts in comely contrast to Bailey’s tumbling string scribbles and once again a colorful marriage of dissimilar sounds arises. Bailey opens up the piece’s middle with some of his most spacious and, dare I say, closely chordal playing while Gjerstad thrusts and parries alongside, hiding out in his instrument’s upper balcony register for most of the piece. The finale-sounding “Leaving it There” acts as an agreeable capstone and opens as almost a lullaby in comparison to what has come before. Gjerstad’s clarinet adopts a dulcet, fluttering voice and Bailey’s swooping strums also adopt a gentler cast for much of the piece, only turning cantankerous for a brief spell.
Over the entire informal program, the two work like a pair of bristle-tipped pipe cleaners aggressively plumbing listener ear canals in an effort to fully excoriate wax and debris. As such it’s not always a pleasant listening experience, but for those who don’t mind a little dissonant pain with their music it’s usually a rewarding one. In his cursory notes to the disc, Gjerstad makes an emphatic case for the proclamation of Derek Bailey Day in Britain. Where do I sign the petition? - Derek Taylor