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Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation [Hardcover]

Ben Watson
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

24 May 2004
Derek Bailey was at the top of his profession as a dance-band and record-session guitarist when, in the early 1960s, he began playing an uncompromisingly abstract music. As the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, with bassist Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley, Bailey forged a musical syntax which has since operated as an international counter to the banality of commercialism. Refusing to be labeled a "jazz" guitarist, Bailey has collaborated with performance artists, electronic experimentalists, classical musicians, Zen dancers, tap dancers, rock stars, jazzers, poets, weirdos and an endless stream of fiercely individual musicians. Today his anti-idiom of "Free Improvisation" has become the lingua franca of the "avant" scene, with Pat Metheny, John Zorn, David Sylvian and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore amongst his admirers. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation lifts the lid on an artistic ferment which has defied every known law of the music business. Telling the story via taped interviews with Bailey and his cohorts, gig reports and album reviews (including an exhaustive discography of Bailey's vast and hard-to-track output), Ben Watson's spiky, partisan and often very funny biography argues that anyone who thought the avant-garde was dead simply forgot to listen.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Verso Books; First printing edition (24 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844670031
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844670031
  • Product Dimensions: 4.3 x 16 x 23.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,307,176 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"I am an enthusiast for the Watson method and I'm prepared to follow him, even to places where I wouldn't under other circumstances go ... I feel profoundly unqualified to promote a text about which I have no specialist knowledge, and for which I have no innate sympathy - being left with unfocused support for the ongoing ever-fecund Watson project. His attack, his singularity. His indecent decency." - Iain Sinclair

About the Author

Ben Watson is a regular contributor to The Wire, Signal to Noise and Hi-Fi News, and the author of Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix and the novel Shitkicks & Doughballs.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars gang of me 12 Feb 2007
Given that Improv shares some of it's fractious roots with the revolutionary socialist subcultures of the 1960's, it's hardly surprising that at times Ben Watson's book resembles a Stalinist purge. After roundly dismissing:
1)All commercial recorded music (apart from Zappa and the Sex Pistols, because he likes them)
2)Jazz (historically and culturally specific idiom - now redundant),
3)Classical music (bourgeois heritage industry),
4)John Cage (irrelevant except as a response to the bourgeois heritage industry)
5)Experimental music of Nyman, Bryars etc. (selling-out to the bourgeois heritage industry),
6)Improv as practiced by Cardewites, AMM etc., Evan Parker after he fell out with Bailey (wrong sort of Improv),
7)Recorded Improv (Bailey was famously dismissive of his own vast recorded output)
- the author leaves us with the impression that the only authentic way to appreciate music is to watch Derek Bailey himself perform live - fine, except the great man passed away in 2005!

Pros (1) - Laughs a-plenty - including the brilliant 'invisible jukebox' interview from 'Wire' magazine.
(2) Excellent first half of the book with a fascinating overview of Bailey's life as a jobbing bandsman.
(3) Ben Watson - witty, erudite, challenging.

Cons: (1) Loses it's way in the second half and turns into a description of a series of gigs - largely falling into two categories - improv that worked and improv that didn't. Granted, Watson does use his examples to explore some of the ideological debates within free improvisation, but after the concision of opening chapters, it still feels a little unfocussed - almost like a series of appendices.
(2) Ben Watson
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It may seem unlikely that the most brilliant, most innovative, most electrically alert practitioner of improvised music on the guitar should be a crusty 74-year-old from Sheffield, but it's nevertheless the case. This biography of Derek Bailey is both a faithful account of the man's career to date, and a further effort to change hearts and minds by one of the best music writers in the world. Ben Watson's earlier book on Frank Zappa is a hurricane in book form, and his further treatise on aesthetics "Art, Class and Cleavage" was even more fabulously outside. This volume sees him in relatively restrained form, perhaps because his subject was both still alive and notoriously ornery.
Bailey has invented an entirely new way of playing the guitar, very loosely derived from the mature work of Anton Webern but entirely his own. His discography is gigantic, and the one in this book is incomplete (I only know this because a 1998 CD came into my possession after reading this book that isn't listed therein.) He spent roughly 15 years as a purely commercial guitar player, an all-round session man, before deciding that he needed to find a way of playing what he came to realise he really wanted to play. This book tells you how he came to these decisions, and what happened after.
The bits of the book that consist of quotes from Bailey himself are truly priceless (his comic timing can't have been damaged by playing in the pit band for Morecambe and Wise) but Watson's accounts of great gigs make you ache that you weren't there. It is also, almost casually, an argument for the importance of free improvisation as a vital current for music itself. Buy this book and whack your jazz snob friends over the head with it. And then listen to Derek Bailey play - the best way is to trek to Barcelona, where he now spends most of his time, and watch him live. Bailey's distrust of recorded music is genuinely provocative. This book, to paraphrase Deep Purple, might just change your life.
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all that you need to know to understand the beginnings fo this terrific musical movement.
Names, dates, concerts, interviews...all that you need to know before start to play or to listen.
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2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overdue evaluation of figurehead and scene 24 Jun 2004
This century's "As Serious As Your Life" Watson firmly places Free Improvisation and it's reluctant hero in a new perspective. Tip-toeing through Bailey's Houdini routine to place Free Improvisation as the one radical force in Music for the last 40 years. Forget what you think you know about Modern Music. This here is Correctitude in excelsis.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surpised when i spotted this one.... 4 April 2005
By Marko Perkovic - Published on
What? Derek Bailey? Verso?

Picked this one up in a flash let me tell you. I have good things to say about this book and one or two not so good things, gave it four out of five after all...

I ve known of but only been sort of listening to Derek Bailey for about five years. Im impressed that a publisher went so far as to put this book out--not only a biographical book about a fairly obscure musician but also a healthy left-wing analysis of a relatively obscure music scene, improvisation. Creative and well written.

The information on Bailey is fantastic, the information about who he played with is even more special--sends you looking in new places. The book functions a bit like a catalog of improvising musicians, giving you info that is not that easy to come by. The tone is quite frank, Watson is not afraid to point out some of the less positive points of Baileys musical partners.

This is one of the problems with the book. Bailey is in the spotlight and can do no wrong. Classically trained musicians bear the worst of Watsons critiques. Im not sure how you can accurately critique improvising musicians, the whole point of this music is exploration. Maybe a few of Baileys muckups would have been good, he is from Yorkshire after all and his humour makes the tone of the book.

The other problem I thought about after finishing this book was the detail Watson goes into explaining the performances, it reads like a long concert review at times. I would have preferred to read about what happened after the show, before, maybe a bit more history on some of the artists and so on.

The part about ECM being bedwetting music for yuppies (sorry if i misquoted but i think im right) pissed me off at first but I came round after a while, look at some of the stuff they have put out in the last ten years.....

So i focused on what I didnt like in this review and hope that someone finds it useful. Its a unique book, even those marginally interested should give it a read.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow, I'm the first to review this book- It's Unique!! 13 Feb 2005
By J. Bewley - Published on
Finally, a book that focuses the spotlight on one of the great musical innovators of our time: Derek Bailey. This book mixes interviews, (past& present), with peer commentary, and a detailed personal history of Derek's upbringing and musical influences. Sadly, though the author bothers to present his personal interpretation of Derek's musical output, I think we can all agree on the futility of such attempts. Luckily this banter is limited to scattered slivers from the whole of the book; he's a fan and couldn't help it!

But aside from my bias, I can completly recommend this book for its content & rich historical perspective on one of the most cherished musical figures of free music. DB

best. jb
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No darlings killed 15 Jun 2006
By Øyvind Skarbø - Published on
My view of this book differs from the other reviews. Maybe it's wrong of me towrite a review, because I have finished the book, but not read it all. Still, this proves my point in a way; The book is too long.

The way this book is written, it reminds me of a method I used in school, and had to deliver a paper on a subject. Often, I chose special subjects where references were scarce, so I ended up having very few sources, just a sentence here and a sentence there. But just by writing around it, adding descriptions etc, I could make it look like this was some serious stuff that I had dug up, that I had done a lot of research on the matter, and I could usually present a long (though probably shallow) paper to the teacher.

In a way, this is what Ben Watson has done. He writes in extreme detail about small events. Only the difference is that he doesn't have few sources, like I had in school. He has an extreme amount of information, and nothing is left out. Like other reviews mentions, this includes his own analysis on certain concerts and recordings. This is to me not very interesting, much because Watson tries to write in a very intelligent way, and pushing his own views on the philosophical aspects of free improvisation. This might not be a problem for you. To me, it makes the book way too long.

There are, however, good sides. There are a lot of long excerpts from interviews with Bailey, and these are the most useful and interesting bits, I find. Bailey explains his views much better than Watson can analyze his way to. Unfortunately, there is less and less of this moving towards the end of the book, and more and more descriptions of events (like who played on this and that Company Week, and if Watson thinks it was successfull or not).

I am an improvising musician myself, I love biographies, as well as conceptual thinking about music. This book still was a boring read - way too detailed, unless you're a Bailey-freak.
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