In 2003, two years before his unexpected death, Derek Bailey was asked by David Sylvian to provide a series of pieces of music over which Sylvian would then sing, for his Blemish album.
His desire was to be stretched as a vocalist, hence his interest in working with Bailey, one of the most famous names in the field of musical improvisation. The result was seven pieces of guitar music that jar the listener (Play 2 is Bailey remarking on dropping his plectrum, talk about completist!), only one of which was actually used by Sylvian.
They turned out to be Bailey's final recording, the end of a 40 year recording career which spanned many genres, from Jazz to Jungle. Fittingly it's just him and an acoustic guitar, strumming, slapping, banging, picking, sliding in and out of key in a glorious demonstration of what the instrument can do beyond the handful of chords most of us are used to hearing.
I saw Derek Bailey only once, behaving like a slight, short, grey-haired rock god at All Tomorrow's Parties in 2001, one of his last performances but typical of the breadth of his ability. Despite the fact that I don't like Jazz, and the word 'improvisation' normally makes my blood run cold, I was blown away, and not just because the sound was deafening at times. Bailey's performance grabbed you by the throat and shook you, no two ways about it. It was brash, it was subtle, it tied your stomach up in knots.
"It's not exactly driving music," my partner commented after the first listen of To Play. And that's precisely the point. This is music that demands your attention, a form that some people like to call radical discontinuity. There's no rhythm to nod along to, the chorus won't be round anytime soon. It swoops and glides and clanks and scrapes along its own wild path.In fact it does everything possible to confound your expectations of what a guitar can sound like.
Yet the more you listen, the more you appreciate the form of each piece, and come to understand why Bailey pauses at precisely THAT moment, why he lulls you there, then suddenly begins plucking sharp, hard notes.
Bailey was known for being open to all sorts of ideas, hence his surprising range of collaborators. He expanded the guitar's vocabulary, played it whisper soft and thunderingly aggressively, tried different ways of amplification, experimented with feedback. The pieces on To Play are not, by his ranging standards, extreme at all. David Sylvian's production of the album is clean and crisp; he knows when not to meddle.
The result is a raw and comparatively approachable recording which will hopefully open more people's eyes to why Derek Bailey is regarded as a god among guitarists.
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