5 Cool Quotes: The Wit and Wisdom of Derek Bailey

Last night, on the way to the Nels Cline/Marc Ribot duet at Le Poisson Rouge, I walked by the apartment that Derek Bailey often stayed in when visiting New York. And it reminded me: the evening’s performance might not be as rich if Bailey hadn’t expanded the language for string instruments during his life.

Turns out that Marc and Nels did offer some of the vocabulary the renowned British improviser helped establish, especially during four acoustic pieces that, as K Leander Williams has mentioned, incorporated “fingerpicking, atmospherics, blues, noise.” Given the fact that this was Cline and Ribot’s debut together, I thought this would be the right time to drop a few nuggets from interviews I did with Bailey throughout the years. The chats took place in the mid-80s. The first is rather relevant.

1. Improvisation is a process that gets relationships sorted out. I’ve brought together people who know each other, but don’t play much together – I like to invite them cold. And the circle of players is getting wider. I like to mix it up. That doesn’t happen in other music as far as I know. Other music is more about having an ideas and polishing them until it dazzles your eyes out. I’ve got to say I don’t understand the unpopularity of improvisation. If I was going out for an evening, I’d choose this stuff.

2. This music can be very serious, but if you take it seriously, it’s a mistake. Improvisation lives under jazz sufferance; most of its visibility comes if a jazz club thinks to throw it in. But I’m one of those people who feel they don’t have any legitimate connection to jazz. I’ve played it in the past, but jazz to me was always something I was looking to get out of. I recognized discomfort there.

3. I still think the most important electric guitarist was Charlie Christian. He changed everything, just like that. My idea of newness is still associated with Christian. Not the way he played, just the fact that he altered everything. That’s something that could happen at any time.

4. I play cliches, too. Obviously they’re less useful. In any given performance, some of the lines are cliched and some aren’t, and a tiny portion are actually new. If everything is going okay, there’s a rejection process that’s taking place; hopefully you’ll recognize cliches as such. [Which isn’t to say] I avoid melodies. In fact, I think I’m playing them all the time. I play a sequence of notes and if it comes out as A-D-E-F-G, it sounds to me like a melody. There are more and more free players playing little songs. The idea that no one in the world of free music plays a melody is pretty outdated.

5. I’ve abandoned solo concerts because I thought I was playing badly. Just left the stage, right in the middle of the show. Part of the problem with playing solo is lack of stimulus. Better to have a partner. The act of playing with other people is important.

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