UK improv godfather Derek Bailey has left us at age 75, apparently having suffered from Lou Gehrig's Disease. Simply put, Bailey invented an entire new approach to electric and acoustic guitar playing that shunned categorization; his was a method of iron dedication and reinvention of vocabulary that only expanded into uncharted realms of his own ability as he aged, and there has never been anyone like him in music. Starting out in 1951 in a more traditional setting of orchestras and dancehall bands, Bailey took apart the rulebook in 1966 exploring textures in playing that can only be called true free music. He took his approach into performances both solo and with groups (notably the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the late 1960's), founded the first truly independent UK free music label, Incus, with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley, and peeled off tons of records ever since while doubling as a major proponent (both in interviews and writing) for improvisation. His biggest rule: the past is the past.
While his solo material is dense and amazing within itself, his collaborations really allowed him to step up to the plate and carve out some real uncharted terrain. Whether it was pipa musician Min Xiao Fen, Japanese heavies the Ruins, UK Drum N' Bass DJs, or tap dancer Will Gaines as sparring partners, Bailey listened intently and threw out endless shapes to counter the sounds that were being offered up, and never did he step up to the role of being a "lead guitarist", hogging a spotlight, or relying on cliches. He excelled at slipping in to the mood of the room, the atmosphere of the accompanying music, and making the music one organic entity no matter how fast, slow, or heavy his collaborators were. And most of the time he was without any effects aside from a volume pedal or perhaps a slight distortion; the first time I saw him play solo at the old Knit back in the late 80's I was initially disappointed at the dry quality of the playing; figuring as a lauded figure in experimental guitar he was going to pack the volume like Keiji Haino, or dazzle with crazy gadgetry ala Gary Lucas, but the music that came from the guitar was raw and human and an unfettered link between his mind and the sound emitted from the amplifier. It quickly made sense to me and I've been a huge fan ever since.
This clip (53 MB mpg) is from a 1993 Incus video called Mountain Stage, where Bailey performs for schoolkids on a sun-drenched Japanese hillside reacting not only to the buzz of crickets around him, but to the moves of Butoh dancer Min Takana, who himself creates his art via channelling the environs, sights, and sounds around him into energy and physical movement. This is a pretty stunning performance, and if you want to hear more of his recorded sounds, Incus, Tzadik, Emanem and Forced Exposure are a few places you can seek them out; his latest release is a disc antitled Carpal Tunnel, which is a truly inspiring document of Bailey's playing while battling the crippling hand disorder during his last year alive in his adopted home of Barcelona. John Allen did an entire three hour tribute to Bailey on the 26th here on WFMU if you want to check it out, and I played an array of varied recordings on the 27th here (you can click on individual tracks to hear in Real Audio).