In the latest of our series in which musicians write about their sources of inspiration, the pianist, composer, and philosopher Steve Tromans writes about his long-term admiration for, and association with, the music of Derek Bailey.
Derek Bailey to Tromans in 2000: “You seem to be doing all the right things… I know it isn’t easy [this improv life], but I hope you keep at it.”
1. Guitar, Drums ’n’ Bass
I was 25 and thought I’d heard it all, music-wise. Then one day at the legendary Swordfish Records in Birmingham I happened across an album called Guitar, Drums ’n’ Bass by Derek Bailey and DJ Ninj. I was familiar with the name Derek Bailey from his book on improvisation, which I’d read as an undergrad composition student at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I was not prepared for what lay in store for my ears, and the music changed my life from then on. I’d heard Branford Marsalis tackle drum ’n’ bass with Buckshot La Fonque, but Bailey’s approach was far different. He didn’t try to match the rhythms of Ninj’s composition (and its various remixes); instead he matched the intensity. Two very different conceptions of musical time came together to create something excitingly, extraordinarily, new. I was hooked, and immediately keen to hear more of Mr. Bailey’s music – as much as I could find (and afford).
After experiencing the distorted intensity of Bailey’s electric guitar work, I soon delighted at the quiet intensity of his acoustic guitar playing. Aida taught me that intensity in music doesn’t need to keep company with loud volume and density of musical events. It was, and is, a lesson in controlled restraint from a master maker of improvised music. “How do I apply this to the piano?” was the burning question that set fire to my imagination.
3. Pleistozaen mit Wasser
This album with Cecil Taylor took me by surprise. I was very familiar with Taylor’s instantly-recognisable modes of musical expression at the piano, but with this performance he confounded my expectations, most notably playing inside the piano (on its strings), and seeming to move further towards Bailey’s modes of musical expression than perhaps Bailey did towards Taylor’s. Which raised curious philosophical questions: “How do we recognise that music is being made together?”, or “When is a duo not a duo?”
4. Music & Dance
The above questions continue with this track, from a duo album with a difference. Only one of the duo is a musician; only one performer can be heard clearly (although the physical efforts of Min Tanaka can sometimes be heard as part of whatever, often strenuous, movement art he was in the process of undertaking). Derek himself declares in the sleeve notes that the music on this album was made by two people. Food for deep musical-philosophical thought, friends.
5. Last Wave
I was familiar with both Tony Williams and Bill Laswell through the former’s work with the Miles Davis Second Quintet and the latter’s Weird Nightmare tribute to the music of Charles Mingus. These two highly individual musical thinkers in trio with Bailey blew my mind. Derek is as uncompromising as ever; Williams shows a heavier style of drumming that is only hinted at in his other work; Laswell adopts the role of a thrash guitarist, albeit on electric bass. Unforgettable.
Min Xiao-Fen, exponent of the Chinese pipa, brings out layers in Bailey’s playing that are maybe lost in the heavier stuff (such as the above track). The delicacy of this music reminds me again of the quiet intensity Derek brought to the Aida performance (and many others). I am lost in a mystical garden as I listen to this (an improv garden of Eden?); my senses are as if newly-formed via the otherworldly sounds conjured by these two master musicians.
7. Live at Verity’s Place
Speaking of master musicians, Han Bennink never fails to disappoint, in any company, and this company is exceptional. The album art (check it out) is one of the best depictions of the artistic struggle in late capitalist society I’ve ever seen. The music, to me, exudes the occasion of the gig: its event. I listen and can feel myself there. Musical-philosophical question: “How is it that such an event-based art as improv can live in time-eternal long after its conclusion?”
8. Live at the Klinker, London, 24 August 2000
Not a track; an experience, if the reader will allow: the first time I met Derek in person. He was immediately welcoming and remembered the music I had sent him made with my long-standing friend and collaborator, the fantastic bassist Mike Green. “Ah! The Birmingham guys!”: his opening statement with a hearty handshake. The music was exceptional. Derek practised a style of playing I think of as “anti-performance”: he did not grandstand (and why would anyone?); he played as he saw fit and it worked – alongside Will Gaines, tap dance, Simon Fell, bass, Mark Wastell, cello – to perfection. We agreed to perform in Birmingham the next year, Derek and Mike and I, at our newly-created Fizzle Improv Club, but sadly it got cancelled (he called to apologise, which speaks further volumes re the generosity of the man): John Zorn had booked him to tour Japan. An experience missed. I wish we had organised another date but life is oftentimes thus.
9. The Sign of 4 (with Pat Metheny)
Pat Metheny had surprised me with his album with Ornette Coleman (Song X) but surprised me much further with this live recording (a triple album) with Derek. As with the performance with Cecil, Bailey once again brings out noticeably different playing approaches from his collaborators. Derek is pure Derek, here. His mature style. Assured, insistent, committed to the avenues of improv – his singular presence had forged over a life of experimentation. Spellbinding. Highly recommended.
10. Dead She Dances
A poem. Declaimed from the guitar. Bailey mixes guitar with spoken word, providing a universe of interest to the ear, his voice as anti-performance as his playing. What do I mean by that? The vocal delivery is matter-of-fact, no pretence of delivery. The guitar is likewise. You need to want to listen, experience. We take one step towards Derek, he takes two towards us. A musician as unique as music itself. Do I miss him? Yes, of course. Don’t you?
Tromans’ work is available on his Bandcamp pages and at FMR Records:
- Sound Art Philosophy on Bandcamp
- Music Concept Time on Bandcamp
- FMR Records (Doctor Stephen Tromans: The Way)
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without