It’s for good reason that the guitar has become so ubiquitous in so many styles of music. It’s relatively easy to play, yet offers almost boundless directions for mastery. It’s both a soloing and a chordal instrument, able to be folksy, harplike and percussive. It’s easy to retune (although, as Derek Bailey was always quick to point out, nearly impossible to tune properly), easy to transport and doesn’t get in the way of singing. And it’s the most commonly electrified instrument.
Any player worth their salt has a voice on their instrument, but the guitar yields an intuitive flexibility from the first attempt at plucking, strumming or bashing - it’s more like gardening than blowing glass. And so, in the pantheon of singular voices, a wealth have come courtesy of the guitar. Easily one of the most distinctive guitarists in the history of recorded music is Derek Bailey (the first anniversary of whose death passed this Christmas). And by virtue of also having been a pioneer in self- sufficient record-making, a wealth of his work is left behind. And while the final statement was the Tzadik release Carpal Tunnel, other recordings will no doubt continue to surface. And with luck, at least some of them will be as good as To Play: The Blemish Sessions. The tracks were made during the recording of singer David Sylvian’s record Blemish (Sylvian, whose career has gone from the ‘80s synthpop band Japan to recent work with audio artist Fennesz, connecting some interesting dots, is to be commended for releasing these on his own label). The 2003 studio dates find Bailey in top form, playing the gorgeous hollow- bodied archtop he favored in later years (amplified on two tracks) and is full of the quizzical juxtapositions that comprised Bailey’s mastery: rough scrapes mingle with ringing notes, slow phrases are intercut with quick staccatos, all creating a funhouse mirror of him playing at once both fast and slow. The eight tracks are warmly recorded, bright and clean. They might not add much new to his discography, but absent the opportunity to hear anything actually new from him, they’re more than welcome.
By comparison, Bern Nix’ recorded output is small and so his voice is not as well known. But Low Barometer might well help to change that. Nix has been a valuable part of ensembles led by Ornette Coleman and Jemeel Moondoc and released one record, 1993’s Alarms and Excursions (New World), as bandleader. But this download-only disc (available through eMusic.com) is his first unaccompanied recording. Like Bailey, he’s a nonlinear player, full of twists and turns, unpredictable without becoming inconsistent. But where Bailey is distinctly nonidiomatic, Nix is very much a jazz player. Playing alone, he creates some interesting challenges. Much of the time he’s playing single-notes without strumming up an accompaniment for himself. And he often drops short phrases of melody, so quick that the listener can get lost thinking “Was that Rodgers and Hammerstein? How does that go?” before realizing that he’s already gone on. He’s a subtly iconoclastic player, all the more so when left by his lonesome.
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