Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What Else?


Derek Bailey
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Derek Bailey; Peter Brötzmann
Albums: Play Backs (DB); Nipples (PB); Fuck de Boere (PB)
Source: Promo

It’s considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, especially the recently deceased, but I don’t think Derek Bailey would mind me saying that I am more than a little confounded by him. Same thing goes for Peter Brötzmann, though he is very much still alive. Both of them made/make noise-driven jazz of the very highest order, and both can be nearly impossible to listen to.

I have first-hand experience of both of those sides of Bailey. On two separate occasions I saw him play at Tonic: once, when he was centered by the ace rhythm section of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston, Bailey’s seemingly counterintuitive string-scraping atonalities created an ugly beauty that bypassed the brain and went straight to somewhere far deeper; the other time, in duet with drummer Susie Ibarra, he was so abstractly unfocused that the semi-ordered tapping of rain on the club’s skylight (which was both musical and drowned out the music a bit) created an audible rush of coherent joy in the room.

In both instances, Bailey was being true to his singular muse, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can think to pay to an artist. Even when he wasn’t hitting, it was clear that Bailey was digging deep into something, and the fact that he was willing to fail makes the successes, to my mind, all the more laudable. In other words, anyone can learn to play a pretty note, and Bailey knew how to play them so well that he stripped them away and asked, “What else?” I suspect he didn’t find a fully satisfactory answer before his recent death in December 2005, and I’d also guess that he was just fine with that.

Brötzmann’s pretty much in the same camp, and the aggressively large ensembles he put together for Nipples and Fuck de Boere include a young Bailey on really, really noisy/atonal guitar. (Un)Popular wisdom says that 1968’s Machine Gun (recorded just before Nipples) is his magnum opus, but I really think I’m just fine with these two, thank you. Each disc features a bunch of forward/free-thinking musicians constantly and consistently going for it, which can either put you off balance or put you off your lunch. It’s even harder to digest than the Brötzmann/Sharrock/Laswell/Shannon Jackson group, Last Exit, which JP and I agreed was pretty much the most unlistenable noise we’d heard up to that point in 1992. We also agreed that its surface of unlistenability was part of the charm.

Context, then, becomes enormously important in music like this. Bailey’s context on Play Backs is more in line with the Tacuma/Weston show than the night with Ibarra and the rainstorm. Each track has a rhythm “back” created by a different artist, including indie rockers John Herndon and Bundy K. Brown; fellow experimental-noiseniks Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke and John French; and even music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Bailey then plays along with the backing track. Taking inspiration from a pre-recorded track that cannot, by its nature, bend to his whims. The results are fairly intriguing – noisy and often a little unhinged, but also interesting and occasionally enjoyable. It's music that speaks well of the inclination to sidestep beauty while also viewing the sublime with some skepticism – positions Bailey and Brötzmann stuck to with unflagging dedication.

SISOSIG? I think Play Backs and Nipples should stick around. I’ll admit that I don’t listen to them much, but I do dip in every now and then, and they fill a historical/collection niche that I suspect would be noticeable in their absence. Fuck de Boere is a live take of the tracks that would be studio-fied as Machine Gun, and at the risk of branding myself a bit of a troglodyte, I just don’t get it (or at least I get it less than the other disc). I can make the argument for having some of this kind of thing, but not a ton of it.

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