Monday, July 18, 2011
Derek Bailey: More 74
by Kurt Gottschalk
Any discovery of a tape box with Derek Bailey’s name on it is something to be heralded. He was an unequivocal champion of improvisation as instinct, not genre (and certainly not merely “jazz”), and an absolute iconoclast on his instrument. If all artists were as intent on upending the context within which they exist, we likely wouldn’t be able to tell paintings from pantomimes.
Debilitation eventually quieted his sonic quest, and unearthed recordings have been surprisingly few since his 2005 death, but the discovery of unreleased tapes from the sessions that produced his 1974 record Lot 74 is a fantastically welcome surprise. That album — released early in his recording career (and issued on CD in 2009 by Incus, the label he co-founded) — caught him in his most overtly experimental period. Following the two volumes of Solo Guitar, Bailey set out to expand his instrument. With two leads coming off his guitar, running to separate volume pedals and separate amplifiers, he was able to create an electrified, stereo field. His utterly enigmatic plinks and clusters and harmonics and muted strings pan back and forth to dizzying effect.
He plays the “stereo electric guitar” on all but the last seven minutes of More 74, the CD issue of that discovered tape reel, and as terrific as the tracks are, they are outtakes. Many of them are under five minutes, and there is included — rather fascinatingly — a few alternate takes of tracks Lot 74. What is perhaps most wonderful about getting a fresh listen to his electric set-up, though, isn’t how radically different he sounds but how much the same. The rig allows for more exaggerated gestures, but the style is familiar, and in fact was remarkably consistent throughout his recording career. It’s as if, having heard the attack and delay and convergences of dually amplified strings, he soon returned to acoustic playing to chase those same sounds.
The final seven minutes of the disc are performed on a more curious device from Bailey’s days of axe modification, an instrument he called the “19-string (approx.) acoustic guitar.” It’s a sort of manic, harp-like thing, with constant detuning a rattling, but again sounds remarkably like him. The program closes with a track called “I Remember the Seventies,” a stab (assumedly the first) at what is called “In Joke (Take 2)” on Lot 74. Here he looks back on what was then the current day, not accompanying himself in a customary sense but playing jaggedly while speaking, as he did on his later Chats records. The piece is delivered with no undue irony, just a nice touch of absurdism, as he recalls his contemporaries in an economy of verbage. It is a happy eventuality that 37 years later, we get to remember again.