Hindsight and emotion can easily overwhelm perception. This is Derek Bailey’s first posthumous release, as well as the improviser’s last solo guitar album to be recorded in a studio. It sits on the discographical timeline between two anomalies: the accessible Ballads (a return to his earlier repertoire after turning his back on a decent living to become one of the leading lights of non-idiomatic improvisation) and the heart-breaking Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, on which you can hear him struggling against the desertion of his motor skills as his fatal neurological illness (initially misdiagnosed, thus the title) progressed. With his death in mind, it’s tempting to look at the cover image of Bailey in darkness or his quip that he’d dropped his plectrum at the end of “Play 3” as foreshadowing. Personally, I’d rather look at the gatefold digipak’s image of the man laughing heartily and just take this as another typically strong solo album.
David Sylvian commissioned these recordings in 2003 in order to give himself the ultimate challenge; Bailey’s vocabulary of crab-walking chords, suspended harmonics, and logic-defying progressions could stymie any singer. Bailey gave him a whole session; Sylvian only used two tracks, but even before Bailey got sick he nurtured a plan to release the sessions as an album. Bailey’s playing late in his career showed a bit more of its jazz roots, and that is true here; you can glimpse them in “Play 6’s” moments of near-swinging strumming and swelling climactic notes. And there’s none of the overdriven rock distortion or adventures into extended technique that he indulged on records like “Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass” or “Solo Guitar Volume 1”; the elements of his style on To Play are pretty conventional, they’re just put together in a singular way. But that’s not to say that he played it straight for Sylvian. There’s the same Dali-esque sense of space and time, the same left turns down alleys only Bailey can see, the same sense of rightness to his jagged contours and sudden leaps. To Play is a strong effort by a master musician.
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