Remembering Derek Bailey

On Christmas day, 2005 Derek Bailey died in his hometown of London, England. He was 75 years old. Known as the father of free improvisation, he was one of the most creative guitarists ever, in terms of both his music and the innovative new techniques that he brought to the instrument. Free improvisation (conceptually something like “making it up as you go along”), was a musical approach that arose in the English and European jazz communities shortly after the birth of Free Jazz in America in the early ’60s.

Responding to the rigors and demands of creating spontaneous music, Bailey developed a new guitar language and extended techniques for playing the instrument. Perhaps most obvious was his total command of harmonics. Bailey charted all of the harmonics, over and in-between all of the guitar’s frets, and combined them with fretted notes and open strings to create complex voicings that western musical theory does not have names for. He also strung together lightning fast runs, combining harmonics, open strings, and fretted notes into arrangements of previously undiscovered tonality.

Bailey also mastered the use of the volume pedal. Not content with simple swells, fade-ins, and fade-outs, he could produce a dozen different dynamic levels with a single plectrum stroke, as well as producing extreme dynamic changes within rapid sequences of notes—effects unlike anything heard on the guitar before.

Bailey began as a jazz, show band, and studio musician in the ’50s, and was said to sound a bit like Jim Hall. On a recent recording,

Ballads: Derek Bailey, he plays jazz standards employing his unique style. Bailey was a master of space and silence, and you can hear how the tradition quickly warps beyond any other jazz player’s imagination in the space of a few notes, as well as the spaces between the notes.

Bailey was also a master of musical interaction, and appeared on hundreds of recordings. A few of his more notorious collaborators include Anthony Braxton, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, Bill Laswell, Buckethead, Cecil Taylor, Paul Motian, John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Steve Lacy, Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Evan Parker, John Stevens, and Fred Frith. Many fine recordings on the Incus label documented the birth and growth of the English free improvisation scene, as well as Bailey’s development as a guitarist.

From the recordings currently in print and available in the USA, the best for the uninitiated to explore Bailey’s music are Aida, Improvisation, Arch Duo, Mirakle, and Lace. Ironically the last recording released in his lifetime, Carpal Tunnel, documented what was thought to be a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, and Bailey’s forced discarding of the plectrum and initial explorations of playing purely fingerstyle. Sadly, the carpal tunnel syndrome turned out to be a misdiagnosis of motor neuron disease, the complications of which resulted in his death.

You can read some of the stories of free improvisation’s history in Bailey’s excellent book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. And although a Bailey biography by Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, is generally reviewed as a work of poor and incomplete scholarship, it’s invaluable for its numerous quotations and interviews with the man himself—a restless explorer who never quit asking questions and working on his technique and music.