To sing along with Derek Bailey: a high bar for anyone to set themselves as a vocalist. But that was what David Sylvian had in mind when he commissioned an armful of solo tracks from the grand dojo of guitar improv. Bailey turned up at South London's Moat Studios in February 2003 and cut eight "Plays" (six acoustic, two electric), two of which ended up as backing tracks on Sylvian's Blemish album the following year. In the event, it turned out to be Bailey's final studio session before he succumbed to the motor neurone disease from which he died on Christmas Day last year.
Sylvian or no Sylvian, it's a fine epitaph, confidently introspective. The opening track's forlorn mood resembles that other great guitar titan's last recording, John Fahey's Red Cross, but Bailey quickly takes himself in hand and the bulk of the set is actually pretty vigorous. Bailey had moved to Barcelona by this time. Perhaps it's fanciful, but do we detect Hispanic notes in this final vintage? Sometimes in the note-flurry, the light falls on a spectre of flamenco; "Play 3" contains pealing harmonics like the bells of the Barrio Gotic; on "Play 5" Bailey makes pliable, melting overtones by bending his guitar neck.
The cover photos of Bailey in his Barcelona apartment show Derek's serious and playful sides, but the abiding mood of To Play is determination, echoed by the cover shot of a Rembrandt-like Derek on his sofa, unfazed by the shadows creeping in.
ROB YOUNG - The Wire Sept 06
Click here for the Samadhisound reviews archive.