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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zoot. Ping. Quaffle.
In the interests of balance, I thought I'd repost a review of the hardcover edition which I wrote some time ago. I've little more to add, except that while Ben Watson isn't everyone's cup of tea, this is still an interesting read. It probably is the best introduction to Free Improvisation for the 'layman' (followers of Improv can be a little like religious zealots - even...
Published 9 months ago by disturbedchinchilla

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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A useless travesty
Verso has produced some very fine books, so I was very surprised when they published this travesty, and even more surprised that they produced a second edition. I have not seen the second edition, but the publicity says it is much the same as the first, so these comments are probably still pertinent.

For instance, to concentrate on the 1970s, which was a...
Published 13 months ago by Martin Davidson


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zoot. Ping. Quaffle., 19 Dec 2013
This review is from: Derek Bailey And the Story of Free Improvisation (Paperback)
In the interests of balance, I thought I'd repost a review of the hardcover edition which I wrote some time ago. I've little more to add, except that while Ben Watson isn't everyone's cup of tea, this is still an interesting read. It probably is the best introduction to Free Improvisation for the 'layman' (followers of Improv can be a little like religious zealots - even if they usually subscribe to a strictly materialist view of the universe) - although if you're willing to dig around, there other are accounts - not least Bailey's own book. Anyway, here it is....

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' popular 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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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A useless travesty, 14 Aug 2013
This review is from: Derek Bailey And the Story of Free Improvisation (Paperback)
Verso has produced some very fine books, so I was very surprised when they published this travesty, and even more surprised that they produced a second edition. I have not seen the second edition, but the publicity says it is much the same as the first, so these comments are probably still pertinent.

For instance, to concentrate on the 1970s, which was a particularly vital time for the London improvising scene, and a period that I am much more familiar with than Watson. Why is there no mention of people who were so supportive of Free Improvisation and Derek Bailey in particular? Victor Schonfield of Music Now gets a cursory mention, but what about Anthony Wood of Actual Music, and Annette Morreau of the Arts Council (when that organisation was much more helpful than it is now)? Why is there no mention of the Musicians Co-operative (comprising Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton, Tony Oxley, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford and others from time to time) - a prime organiser of concerts for about five years? Surprisingly, there is even no mention of the weekly Co-op concerts held at the Unity Theatre, which for the rest of the week was a theatre run by Marxists.

And why, above all, is there no mention of Janice Christianson who ran Albion Music? Not only did she produce gigs of Free Improvisation and Free Jazz for a considerable time, but she later specialised more and more in setting up gigs for Bailey - after all, she was his partner for about ten years. (We do, however, get the names of at least two of Watson's partners - maybe the book should have been called "Derek Bailey and the story of Ben Watson"!)

Then there are numerous significant Free Improvisers who are either summarily dismissed (often on very selective evidence) or simply ignored - far too many to be listed here. By no reasonable stretch of the imagination is this "The Story of Free Improvisation". An example of someone who has been airbrushed from the picture - at least he hasn't been attacked with an alpenstock - is guitarist Roger Smith. He studied with Derek Bailey in the early 1970s, and was strongly influenced by him while finding his own voice. Bailey enjoys his music, but Watson does not, so there is no mention. Contrast this with Frank Zappa who pops up all over the book, even though he had virtually nothing to do with Bailey or Free Improvisation. But then, Watson likes his music and Bailey does not. It surely would have been more appropriate in a biography about Bailey to touch on musicians he admires (such as Art Tatum) rather than dwell on those he does not (like Zappa and the punks).

Even though Watson wasn't around at the time, he limited his research to interviewing just a handful of people who were, rather than speaking to as many people as possible to try and get the complete picture. A minor example: If he had spoken to Paul Rutherford (or me), he would have discovered that Rutherford's trio, "Iskra 1903", was named after Lenin's newspaper, but had nothing to do with the year 1903. The "19" indicated 20th century music, while the "03" indicated the number of performers. Thus when Evan Parker was added to the band, as sometimes happened, it became Iskra 1904. This isn't the first time I've had to apologise to Watson for the facts not conforming to his theories! There is, after all, far more to Marxism than name dropping, historical event hopping, and pointing out the similarities between Free Improvisation and Punk Rock (especially when the differences are far greater).

A main thrust of the book seems to be to belittle or ignore the achievements of AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble - the two groups that came up with original improvising methodologies in the 1960s as alternatives to the Free Jazz approach. These two approaches are still very prevalent nearly fifty years later, even though many younger exponents may not be aware of the originals. Bailey is quoted as saying early on in the book: "Nobody invented Free Improvisation." Watson then proceeds to spend much of the book trying to show that Free Improvisation was invented by a trio in Sheffield that played John Coltrane and Bill Evans tunes! (Several more valid claims about the earliest full-time Free Improvisation groups have been made - the earliest recordings would seem to be those of Ongaku made in Tokyo in 1960.)

The "eighteen-quavers-in-a-bar" claimed in this book to have been discovered by Tony Oxley (and by other Jazz drummers elsewhere) is all very well, but in Free Improvisation there generally are not any bars. Did Oxley continue to use eighteen-quavers-in-a-bar even when the other group members were not using bars?

It would have been much more interesting to have a detailed description of the early years of Incus Records and the Musicians Co-operative, rather than the hyper-overlong description of the later Company gigs that Watson happened to attend. It's all very well saying that, "Bailey and Oxley have remained deeply resentful of Evan Parker's behaviour." It should be obvious that Parker feels the same way about the other two. Watson claims to "having been the target of a furious public dressing-down by Evan Parker for criticising the romanticism of a Keith Tippett solo piano performance", when what Parker was complaining about was Watson's inability to hear that Tippett was just using the resonance of the piano rather than any low grade electronics. It would seem that Watson has subsequently taken his revenge by badmouthing Parker and his music as much as possible in this book and elsewhere.

Watson admits in this book to being too drunk to consummate a relationship with an eagerly willing woman. After reading this book and his other writings, I can't help wondering whether some of his value judgements were made when he was too drunk to hear the music. He has at times made some spot-on sober assessments, but he appears to have boxed himself into a corner with his other ones. We all have our likes and dislikes, but to pretend to cover a very wide area based solely on ones prejudices, combined with some very limited research, has resulted in a tome that is provocative, but ultimately useless. It could even be worse than useless, if people new to the music take it seriously.

Derek Bailey was a very important musician, and Free Improvisation is the most important music of our time. The world deserves something very much better than this travesty of a book. Other books on Free Improvisation are currently being written. Hopefully they will be much better than this.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing seems to impress Ben Watson more than his own opinion..., 18 July 2014
I discovered Derek Bailey in 1976, an older kid in the 6th form at my comprehensive school lent me 'Guitar Solos 2', which also featured Fred Frith, Gerry Fitzgerald and Hans Reichel. A bit of an epiphany for me, being as at the time I was 'into' Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, ELP, etc, although I had already heard Henry Cow and been intrigued by them ('punk' however was still a way in the distance although me and my peers were aware of a group called 'The Sex Pistols' through gig reviews and rumours about them in the copies of 'Melody Maker' that we used to read in the school library during lunch breaks). Frith, Reichel and Fitzgerald were stretching the boundaries of the electric guitar by utilising violin bows (even though Jimmy Page was also doing that...), weird effects pedals, putting crocodile clips on the strings and putting contact microphones at the wrong end of the guitar neck, and that was all grist to the mill of our exploration of the outer limits of experimental music. Derek Bailey however was 'going too far', just a load of random notes being played on an acoustic guitar, and basically a load of pretentious sh*t... However, I kept coming back to it, finding it strangely fascinating, and began to check out more of his music as well as other improvisors and releases on the Incus, FMP, Emanem and Bead labels. I became a regular attendee at improv gigs such as Company at the ICA in 1978, the Qua Qua club, London Musicians Collective and SME gigs, at the same time as going along to 'post-punk' performances by the likes of This Heat, Gang of 4, The Fall, The Beat, The Slits and Crass. Throughout the years Bailey has remained a bit of a constant 'guitar hero' for me, parallel to many other musical interests I've had over the decades since then. I've always admired his uncompromising experimentalism, his re-invention of the guitar 'vocabulary' and his willingness to challenge his own limitations, plus his dry sense of humour and the fact that he lets his music speak for itself. So I was pleased to come across this book when I was in Housmans Bookshop in Kings Cross, one of the last truly independent and 'radical' bookshops in London, when i had a few spare pounds and treated myself to a copy. It's taken me a while to get through it, but I've persisted, even if at times it has been bloody hard work.

My summary of it would be that the first half of the book is absolutely fascinating, a real insight into Bailey's early years and what motivated him and made him tick, esp the stuff about his session musician days and his 'radicalisation' via the Joseph Holbrooke Trio . Unfortunately the rest of the book isn't so much about Bailey as it is about the opinions of the author, Ben Watson, and basically he comes across as a bit of a c**t. Over and over again we are treated to his turgid 'Marxist' or 'Ardono-ist' (whoever he is??) waffling prose. Free Improv is the most 'pure' and 'highest' form of music! 'Composed' music is selling out to 'the man'! Yes we get it! Feck me do we have to read it over and over again on every other page until our eyeballs are falling out??? And why the constant comparing of apples to oranges by launching into tirades against John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Evan Parker, Gavin Bryars, Iskra 1903, ECM artists and anybody else who isn't Derek, Frank Zappa or The Sex Pistols at every opportunity??? It gets embarrassing after a while, a bit like those 6th form classroom 'debates' all those years back when we who were 'in the know' with our 'prog' albums would sneer at the kids who were still watching TOTP and dancing to Abba (but were also getting the girls)... Although the most excruciatingly embarrassing bits had to be his long winded 'explaining' of the 'Stock, Hausen and Walkman' group name pun and the name dropping of Johnny Thunders apropos of nothing... Gosh Ben is not only into Derek Bailey, he digs Johnny Thunders too! isn't he catholic in his tastes!

Although it had some very interesting and insightful bits, most notably when Derek speaks for himself rather than being mediated by Watson, the book generally feels like a missed opportunity and could have been half the length. I used to have several back copies of Musics magazine, plus the 'Company Week' issue of Impetus magazine and the 1978 Bailey interview issue of 'Guitar' magazine that Watson refers to few times in this book, these were far more insightful of the free improv movement than this, must see if I can dig them out some time...
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5.0 out of 5 stars I liked it - but I didn't really get it, 8 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Derek Bailey And the Story of Free Improvisation (Paperback)
Essential reading for followers of Free Improvisation... a wild mix of free jazz, modern classical, psychedelia and... Complete Chaos (should be a genre). I first got into it aged about 18 when a friend of mine lent me his huge collection of Incus records (along with his Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Alan Silva and Anthony Braxton records). I liked it - but I didn't really get it. Wish I'd had this book to read back then (I'm talking late 70s). A brilliant biography of Derek Bailey the pioneering guitarist that just got tired of cranking out MOR sessions, broke away (even from jazz) and headed for the free improv hills. The second part of the book is the story of how free improv developed through the 70s onwards. It's a philosophy, a discipline and an obsession. Some of the musical theory was way over my head but it reminded me to obtain some great landmark albums (such as Tony Oxley's The Baptised Traveller which you can find for £2.97 right here on Amazon as a download - considering the vinyl goes for £100+ that's a bargain and a half). A good read anyway - backed by solid research and a massive enthusiasm for the music. Oh yeah - Ben Watson is a great writer. Five stars.
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Derek Bailey And the Story of Free Improvisation
Derek Bailey And the Story of Free Improvisation by Ben Watson (Paperback - 15 July 2013)
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