a column by
Stuart Broomer

Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey in Barcelona                                                 Carme Fernandez©2009

Derek Bailey moved from London to Barcelona in 2003 and spent most of his remaining years there before dying in London on Christmas Day, 2005, from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a form of motor neuron disease also known as Charcot’s Disease and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In the last two years of Bailey’s life he struggled with misdiagnosis and the challenge of altering his fundamental guitar technique as well as the progress of his disease itself.  In the years since, Bailey’s partner Karen Brookman has continued the Incus label and has recently released three of Bailey’s final performances with the collective title Barcelona Chronicles, though the three components are available singly: two DVDs of solo performances and a CD of a duet performance with pianist Augusti Fernandez.

The key elements of Bailey’s story are apparent from a 2005 Tzadik release called Carpal Tunnel and the obituaries. In 2004, he began experiencing difficulties with his right hand, dropping a guitar pick in a performance. Diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Bailey was encouraged by doctors to undergo an operation on his hand. Instead he elected to forego the surgery and to explore his changing physical condition as part of his playing, developing a thumb-picking technique to overcome his difficulty. While he managed to play in public until May of 2005, Bailey’s marked deterioration continued. Eventually the diagnosis of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome proved wrong, and his condition was ultimately identified as Motor Neuron Disease in August 2005.

What is initially most striking about the performances – especially given the visual component of two of them – is that it is Bailey’s art that emerges most significantly rather than the progress of his disease. Further, it is Bailey’s very combativeness that makes the later performances most valuable. If improvisation asks questions about what is dialogue, collaboration, or community, then Bailey, one of the instrument’s most original virtuosi, has discovered a new collaborator and sparring partner, his own disease, his mounting disability. If all of Bailey’s work is difficult, demanding and argumentative, then these final works are most so, for the humor is still there, as well as the originality.

The first of the Barcelona performances is a video recording of a solo performance, Live at G’s Club (Incus DVD 01), from February 10, 2004 (first issued on Incus in 2004 as a CD-R). It captures Bailey’s art on the eve of the physical changes that would force him to revise his playing style. Almost an hour in length, it’s a relaxed journey into challenging terrain and the visual component (one watches video more intensely than one experiences the visual when present at a live performance) emphasizes the guitar performance as a physical vocabulary (and the immediate relationship to audience as well, a clearly present audience of which the viewer is not a part). In some ways a typical Bailey solo performance, Live at G’s Club demonstrates the fluency and ease of his ever-shifting approach to the instrument, from his roots in Ellington songs and the rhythm guitar technique of Freddie Green to original techniques like changing the pitch of feedback by pressing a string below the instrument’s bridge.

The most detailed chronology of Bailey’s changing relationship with the guitar comes from Barcelona pianist Dr. Francesc Diaz I Melis’ note to the second instalment in the Barcelona Chronicles, the DVD called All Thumbs (Incus DVD 02).  According to Diaz I Melis, Bailey began experiencing muscular difficulties in the spring of 2004, primarily in the right hand. On June 25, 2004 Bailey dropped his plectrum – in his case the particularly thick flat pick favored by many more traditional jazz guitarists –during a duet concert with the Danish composer/improviser Jakob Draminsky Højmark.    

All Thumbs documents a short (23-minute) solo performance recorded on a sun-drenched Barcelona patio on July 26, 2004, the first time that Bailey would play the guitar with thumb instead of pick in public. He begins the performance playing with a pick, then announces around the three-minute mark: “As we’re amongst friends...I’ve got a problem.” He goes on to explain that there’s nothing wrong with the thumb, but rather with the index finger which he’s been told is asleep. Not wanting to wake it, he opts to play with his thumb and names the piece “All Thumbs.”  

There’s a fundamental difference between playing guitar with a pick and playing with one’s thumb. It’s an adage of traditional guitar picking that single-note lines are played with alternating up and down strokes, part of the playing tradition of the instrument and a key to achieving speed. The special attention paid to Wes Montgomery’s thumb-picking is that Montgomery achieved very fast bop lines with such an unconventional technique (so does John Abercrombie). It also changes the sound of the instrument, creating that particularly warm, mellifluous sound that Montgomery had, and even a certain hollowness at the center of the sound. It’s a difficult and unusual switch for a guitarist to make, no doubt especially so for a musician who has been playing guitar for over 60 years.

What makes it particularly arresting in Bailey’s career is the special relationship that he has to guitar playing as activity. I can think of no other improviser who has made talking a component of his playing. Like an avant-garde Victor Borge, Bailey keeps playing as he talks to the audience between numbers, playing the guitar as a kind of autonomous motor activity. And that is the most striking aspect of Bailey’s playing: it is a not a random activity, but a randomizing one, one that disconnects existing links and cohesion. It’s often the marvel of Bailey’s performances with other musicians: their lines take on a fresh lack of continuity.  Bailey’s talking emphasizes the disconnection, as if he can play without concentrating, or as if the guitar playing is another discourse, a counter-language, a self-directed obligato.

Part of the Bailey wit consists in presenting the performance as if it were “normal.”  In Live at G’s Club, He announces a piece as an old American song, “Mabel, Mabel, get your elbow off the table.” At another time, encouraged to play another piece, he claims the Japanese voice of an electronic device is saying, “You might be enjoying this, but think of the others.” On the Barcelona patio of All Thumbs, he encourages a barking neighborhood dog that’s accompanying him off-camera. It is the immediacy of Bailey’s art that’s emphasized, as well as the (ironic) necessity of embracing and asserting the common (and maybe common-sense) repudiation of what he’s doing.

While the precise chronology of these recordings is clear they seem to conflict with the sole date provided by Carpal Tunnel, released in July 2005 (Tzadik #7612). While the CD gives relative intervals for Bailey’s progress as he relearns the instrument, the overall recording date “2005 by Derek Bailey, Barcelona, Spain” is likely off by a year. The problem is described in the opening “explanation & thanks” (a Bailey “postcard,” in which he speaks, while playing, to a Quebec artist named Carol) and then followed by successive tracks, beginning “after three weeks,” then proceeding by two-week intervals until it reaches “after nine weeks” and leaps to the final “after 12 weeks.” Given that the opening words refer to the recent relocation from London to Barcelona, it’s likely the material comes from the summer and fall of 2004. Further, the thumb-playing of “All Thumbs” actually seems more technically developed than the track called “After three weeks” on Carpal Tunnel (Diaz I Melis dates the Carpal Tunnel diagnosis as “three months after” Bailey began experiencing weakness in his hands in March 2004). The progressive development of technical fluency in Carpal Tunnel is a startling achievement, Bailey at 74 capturing a new voice in the midst of loss and decay. It’s remarkable in the same way as Django Reinhardt, at 18, developing a virtuoso guitar technique with only two fully functional fingers on his right hand.  

The last of these performances is a CD of a duo concert with the pianist Agusti Fernandez, A Silent Dance (Incus CD 58). Recorded on May 12, 2005, it is Bailey’s final public performance. It is simply one of the great events of recent improvised music, a kind of dense and vibrant emptiness that will immediately suggest Cage’s sonatas for prepared piano (Agusti’s prepared piano and string-play seem both post- and prototype to parts of the Bailey vocabulary present since the 1960s), George Crumb’s “Night Music” or Feldman’s pieces for Philip Guston and Samuel Beckett, both the Feldman works and the works of his subjects suggesting the clarity and naked being of these final Bailey performances.

These are more than the final testament of a great musician: they’re forceful documents of improvised music as an essential component of human experience. Bailey’s struggle to “play with” his disability, to inquire into its specific musical and psychological meanings, is a special kind of triumph. 

Stuart Broomer©2009

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