Guitarists Rule the World, Part V: Derek Bailey

Recently I was lured into one of those conversations while waiting in line for a show. This one was “favorite guitarists.” Ribot was mentioned, as was Richard Thompson, for whom I’ve also been known to swoon, and others. But when it came around to me, I said only one word: “Derek.” Even giving a last name would have diluted my message.

There’s plenty of guitarists I like, of course. But only one that I really wanted to be my answer. I’m not really sure when the first time I heard Bailey play was. It may have been the record Yankees with George Lewis and John Zorn. But I know for a long time I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it. The first time I heard him live was with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, playing inside a pedestal of the Brooklyn Bridge. And that’s when I got it. He wasn’t playing with her, he was playing against her. And suddenly the whole music changed.

Bailey was brilliant, of course, as a player, a listener and provocateur. After his death in December, 2005, I wrote a piece for All About Jazz. In it I talked about how inviting his playing is and quoted Ben Watson, who wrote in his crucial tome Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation that “like a truly interesting conversationalist, Bailey’s guitar-playing does not flatter the musicians he plays with, or attempt to make them sound good in a facile way: he attempts to understand what they are playing by contradicting them. ... The source of his ‘spikiness’ is his interest in repartee; his negations are productive because they are grounded in musical comprehension of his interlocuter’s logic.”

It's that sense of logic, that conversation (even when it’s a monologue) that makes Bailey’s music so exciting to me. I’ve got loads of his recordings, but I still don’t have them all. I’m glad. Once in a while I still get to hear him play something “new.” I get to hear him tell a story I haven’t heard before.

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