by carl wilson

'So, elevation and takeoff has to be
between 8 and 11 in the evening usually.'
Derek Bailey Postscript the Second

derek.jpg

I was just reading the Jazzcorner discussion of Derek Bailey's death, as I linked earlier, and came across two things I wanted to share. First, just a note that the funeral takes place Thursday (Jan. 5) at 10 a.m. London time, at the City of London Crematorium. And second, Jon Abbey posted an out-of-print interview with Bailey from 2000 by New Zealand writer Nick Cain, which includes an amazing passage with Bailey's thoughts on collaboration, about the "transcendent" notion of free jazz, which he critiques with great clarity, and about the problem of the workaday nature of art-making for musicians. Especially good reading for other improvisers, but worthwhile for anyone interested in jazz and improv. You'll find it on the jump.

From an interview with Derek Bailey by Nick Cain in Opprobrium magazine, which can be found in full on this page in the Jazzcorner forum.

N: How flexible an improviser do you regard yourself to be? For example, when you play with Han Bennink, you sound different to how you do when you play with Cecil or Steve Lacy - how much of yourself do you think you retain when you're playing with various different people?

D: To me, the way I play is the musical equipment I bring to the event. The way I play is what I'm going to work with. But the music, for me, is brought by the other people. There isn't any point in playing with somebody unless they're going to bring music. I'm sometimes accused of ignoring people I play with, which has always struck me as strange, because I find other people very necessary. I don't, for instance, like playing solo, and I'm not that interested in playing solo - doing it or listening to it, or anything. Although most of the gigs I get are solo. I kind of feel that what I do is not complete unless I'm playing with somebody else. They do more than complete it, they provide the basis for whatever we're doing. It starts with the other people.

Particularly in recent years, I've found that the two most stimulating things in playing are difference and unfamiliarity. The playing I've done over the last five or six years has come about partly through accidents and partly through intention, and it's been poking around looking for other situations outside the improvised music field. The best plays are with other improvisers but to take this tool, this way of playing, into other situations, to see how it works, that's important for me. It's always based in improvisation, because that's the way I work but to make it work with other people, who perhaps don't normally play improvised music, that's very satisfying. [...]

N: What I meant was, when you play with people like that, how much do you adapt to them, and how much do they adapt to you?

D: I thought I'd explained that. I can only adapt so far, because it's of no interest to me to go and play with Min Xiao-Fen, say, and imitate the pipa, use a few of her scales and play with her in a kind of quasi-Chinese way. But it is of interest to me to take what I do and make it work in her situation as far as I can, to see if I can make it work, and to see how successful I can be. She's the essential element - without her, I'm just playing what I always play, and that's of no interest at all to me. Or, very little interest. Except as a research thing. So the other people are vital.

N: So you're recontextualising what you do?

D: Yeah, and that's what it's for - to be recontextualised, as you put it.That's the purpose of it. Taking it into a strange, unfamiliar musical situation vitalises it, that's what it's for. And in a sense, that's what it was always for - to play with other people. Coming round over the years to playing the way I do now, from starting out playing conventionally, was in the first place in order to accommodate playing freely with other people. I never thought that playing free was satisfying enough if I used conventional techniques and material. If I was using conventional techniques and material, I would sooner play conventional music. Particularly when I first started playing freely, I didn't want to lose any of the satisfaction I'd derived from playing conventional jazz. So it had to work for me in certain ways. it wasn't just a question of aiming for some emotional oblivion, and passing from this planet into some sort of transcendent state. I wasn't interested in that approach.

N: You mean like the William Parker/free jazz visionary sort of thing?

D: I don't automatically link them together. William is a remarkable player and I've played with him in situations which have little or nothing to do with free jazz. And playing free jazz with William is quite special in the same way that playing free jazz with Milford Graves is special. The genuine article. So, I've got nothing against that shit when it's played by the right people, but it's not the main thing for me.

N: I think the idea of free playing as an ongoing, workaday kind of music is more honest than this notion of free jazz as providing some sort of spiritual elevation and mental takeoff.

D: There are a lot of strange things about playing that way. You rarely choose the time and place when you play, for instance. This - what did you callit? Elevation and...

N: Takeoff. They're not very good terms.

D: They're fine. So, elevation and takeoff has to be between 8 and 11 in the evening usually. And at 11, you have to come down, presumably. And when you do that, do you go home and have a cup of cocoa? And it does depend on somebody giving you a gig. Somebody might ring you up and say: "How are you fixed for February 14th for doing a bit of elevating and taking off down at my club? Can you come over to New York and spend three nights elevating and taking off? Start at 8, don't be late." There's a whole mundane side to playing that I think disqualifies it as an art. It's something different. And you have to do it on the basis of that. It includes art but it's more than that. You get comparisons sometimes with painting. But can you imagine a painter who'd be willing to always paint in a public place between 8 and 11 at night with a bunch of people peering over their shoulder? They invented the studio, for fuck's sake. The idea was to shut everybody off, and then to be alone with their muse. Playing, you can't be alone with your muse - you've got to share it with whoever's turned up. The whole business of aiming for some sort of emotional catharsis when you play seems to me to be a very limiting thing. Its more complicated than that.

N: I find the idea that you can achieve some sort of transcendent ecstasy by listening to free jazz a bit naive. I like a lot of that music, but it's been around for such a long time now that it's no longer necessarily a very radical form of music. It has its own tradition just like anything else.

D: I've got nothing against free jazz the way the early guys played it. It was an exploration. It's much different now to what it used to be 30, 40 years ago. I mean, I quite like active music. I like inactive music as well, but I've got nothing against active music. I don't think there's anything wrong with sweating, if the music gets you to that state. [laughs] But using that as a basis for what you're doing, you're on pretty uninteresting ground. Especially over a longer period. But some people play for that, and if they get satisfaction out of it, fine. My general view of these things is that I don't give two fucks what the others do as long as I can do what I do.

N: In the past you've expressed antipathy towards jazz - why is that? Is it because you resent the way free jazz and improv are lumped together?

D: I don't think it's done any good for free improvisation, generally speaking, to be coupled with jazz. But my view of jazz is that it died about 1956. It staggered on in some quite interesting ways into the early '60s, and then it was resurrected in a rather ghoulish manner in the 1980s. But this is also a personal thing. It was partly to do with my own dissatisfaction with it and my decision, around the age of 23, that I was never going to be Charlie Christian. Before that, I'd probably entertained delusions about being a great jazz player. I decided at that time that if that's what I wanted I should have started in a different place, at a different time, and maybe in a different race.

N: Which of the jazz players did you rate? I know that in the past you've mentioned Albert Ayler.

D: I think he was a fine player, but all the jazz players I've really admired have been conventional players. They had a freedom that was built into the idiom, and once you step outside it, the whole thing falls to pieces... The basis for jazz changed in the '50s. It used to lead popular music, popular music used to borrow from jazz. At some point in the late '50s, I suppose when rock 'n' roll turned up, it was obvious jazz wasn't leading anything. [laughs] That's all a rather lengthy explanation of why I don't hate the stuff, it's just that I'm just not interested in it. And the fact that for one or two free players, it's important to be known as jazz players - while there might be some immediate career advantage in that, because most of the work lies within the jazz world for free players, in Europe, anyway - it's never seemed to be a very productive association. From a free point of view. I think it's much better now, where there's just this mess out there, there's all kinds of shit going down - one area's all based on electronics, another area's based on fringe rock, and so on. I think that's a good background against which a free improviser can work. [...]

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, January 03 at 2:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

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Posted by Baby Gifts on January 19, 2006 5:28 PM

 

 

I agree about the self-styled radicals usually growing out of the phase, just saying it's damned annoying while they're in it.
This applies to every artistic medium, and I would never want to constrain artists' more severe or unhumble impulses, but a lot of what gets created in the name of radicalism is frustratingly reactionary.

By the way, I didn't think Bailey was saying jazz was boring so much as that it is dead, post-1956, which isn't same thing. Not dead in the self-serving Marsalis-bourgeois nostalgia way, but just not progressing as fast or as vitally as a living organism. (People can still re-animate a corpse to brilliant effect - I'm sure there are good operas and verse dramas still to be written.) Some of my favourite jazz came after 1956, but I still see Bailey's point.

While I'm here, can I second the need for a Bailey memorial concert at the Tranzac? Maybe with some unlikely collaborations?

Posted by Canadian Bystander on January 4, 2006 6:47 PM

 

 

No, no misinterpretation here. Sorry about the combative tone the first time around (I didn't mean it to sound so much so). But this expansion makes much more sense of your point - you have to remember that when I read your comment, I didn't know at all about your tastes in this area, so the shorthand was easy to read as overly dismissive. Still, I think the attitude you're discussing is much less common than you suggest. There are still a few "just blow" free-jazz people around, but not really that many. If you get a contrary impression in Montreal (the "getting the better of music" attitude, as you wittily put it), it tends to make me think Mtl.'s in a bad phase. That's something I associate much more with the noise scene right now than with improv. And I do think it's something even the young self-styled radicals tend to grow out of.

What I liked about Bailey's comments was not so much the jazz-is-boring stuff (which I find a little too facile, and he kept having to retract it whenever a specific case was raised) as the recognition that it didn't make sense for him to feel tied to the idiom, given who he was, and the notion that there are a lot of *other* potential musical jumping-off points for improv, and that the history doesn't automatically dictate that jazz is a superior place to start.

Posted by zoilus on January 4, 2006 5:30 PM

 

 

Zoilus,

First of all, my comment was implicitly making a distinction between "free jazz" and "improvised music" - the same distinction that Bailey makes in the interview. The former is a musical idiom that often gets mistaken for a state of musical being.

I'm well aware how good both free jazz and improvised music at their best can be. My only point was that, in the case of free jazz, some of its players assume the adjective for themselves but few of its qualities. It gets stale, which I think was also Bailey's point.

This also applies, I know, to bands who assume they are the reincarnation of MC5 or the Sonics or something if they wear denim and leather and shout "Rockandroll!" a lot.

I will admit my own aesthetic bias leans toward people who seek "elevation and liftoff" within seemingly constraining structures and forms - Bach, Fahey (not the later, de-tuning Fahey), Mingus, Miles, Fela, MBV, etc.. I like the tension that kind of approach creates - freedom within constraint. Ornette is/was brilliant at that kind of thing. His outright "free jazz" is, to my own ears, far less interesting than when he allowed freeish jazz to pull apart or broaden structure rather than obliterate it entirely.

My own take on free and improvised music is that they are merely other approaches - different in kind, but hopefully not in intent. The result is music, however banal that sounds. The point of my post was that too many musicians who take up free jazz do so in too religious or arrogant a spirit, as if they've "outgrown" structure. I find it more interesting when once-free musicians gradually find themselves incorporating more and more conventional melody and structure in their work. I know this will be misinterpreted as my first post was, but this always shows an interesting humility, a more truly religious approach, the realization that music is bigger than the musician, not the reverse. I've seen too many free jazz performances that seemed to be more about punishing music for having such a sub-intellectual appeal. It's like the worst postmodern impulses to '"frustrate expecations." There are expectations that deserve to be frustrated, but those expectations are the audience's, not something inherent in music itself. Some musicians get confused. If anything, they end up pandering to their audiences by perpetually frustrating expectation. Then all can say, 'we got the better of music that time, didn't we? We weren't tricked.'

Having said all that, I should reiterate that there is a lot of both free jazz and improvised music that blows my head off and that I listen to regularly (I know, I know: "some of my best friends are improvised music!"). I'm not Philip Larkin. I just don't give it any inherent value above something more strict and structured and planned like Ellington or The Pixies.

Posted by Canadian Bystander on January 4, 2006 4:52 PM

 

 

Bystander, if you don't think anyone is "using" their freedom in improvised music and free jazz, you really have no idea what you're talking about. The negation is just what you hear on a first impression. When you get past the shock effect of the lack of apparent rhythmic or melodic structures, you'll discover that there's a great deal going on in each moment of good free or improvised music that's in no way negative.

Posted by zoilus on January 4, 2006 10:14 AM

 

 

That's a great interview, or a great fragment of an interview. It got at one thing that's always bothered me about free jazz, something which seems trivial or beside the point at first, but gets to the heart of the problem - why, if it's so free, is it still jazz? Why is it almost always drummer, piano player, bassist, saxohone player, etc..? I know it isn't always, but it is enough to suggest it's more a musical idiom in itself, with its own conventions, than an expression of 'freedom.' After the first few years of it, after Ornette and Coltrane and all that, you'd think someone would have said, "Okay, okay - you're free. Now start using your freedom." It puts too much emphasis on negation.

I know a few young free jazz players in Montreal who came to it through art rock, and there seems to be something weirdly Marxist or jesuitical that comes over people who get into it. They lose the joy and gain a mission.

Posted by Canadian Bystander on January 3, 2006 11:26 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson