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Derek Bailey / Paul Motian : Duo in Concert

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    Posted: 27 Nov 2023 at 9:52am
Derek Bailey  Paul Motian Duo in Concert
These are the only known recordings of the legendary improvising guitarist and the celebrated jazz drummer. Though wildly abstract, their playing also feels like a conversation between friends.

In 2002, three years before his death, Derek Bailey explained his secret to a life of sustained creative practice. “It’s through other people,” he said. “There are improvisers who like to work regularly over decades with the same people. I’m not one of them.” The simplicity of the English guitarist’s answer belied the depth and intensity of his discipline. Bailey started improvising with other musicians in the early 1950s, and performed with bassist Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley during the 1960s. But during the first half of the next decade, he spent much of his time playing alone. The move was intentional: He believed that with a foundation in solo improvisation, he could play with anyone. During this exploratory phase, he traced the outer limits of his instrument, searching for “a language that would be literally disjointed” and “more open to manipulation.” The goal, as he stated in his 1980 book Improvisation, was “perpetual variation.”

He held steadfast to that objective. Drop into any album from his gargantuan catalog and something new comes to light. On 1988’s Cyro, Bailey’s guitar frolics with bells, shakers, and friction drums, highlighting the percussive range of his every pluck and scrape. In 1981’s Views from 6 Windows, Christine Jeffrey’s extended vocal techniques subtly oscillate between textural utterances and something more melodic—a mirror to Bailey’s own traversal of the guitar’s expressive and austere registers. He’d even play along with pirate radio stations, enticed by the speed of jungle tracks; at their best, these exercises reveal the thrill in spontaneity underlining all his works, regardless of tempo. The new release Duo in Concert unveils even more. It contains the only shows pairing Bailey and American drummer Paul Motian: one in Groningen, the Netherlands, and the other in New York City. Recorded in the early 1990s, these performances capture two improvisational titans at the height of their powers, their collaboration a conduit for novel modes of artistic expression.

At the beginning of their 35-minute concert in Groningen, the two seem to be feeling out their instruments. Bailey lets chords ring out before darting around with spangled melodies, and Motian taps a cymbal before employing drum rolls that fade into one another. It’d feel like a scrappy soundcheck if they weren’t obviously riffing with each other. Their chemistry is immediate, and it makes sense: When Bailey was in his trio with Bryars and Oxley, they’d listen to the Bill Evans Trio, which counted Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro as members. On a song like “All of You,” Motian’s brushwork provides the backbone for piano and bass to zigzag across the landscape. That happens in this show too, but at the micro level: For about 50 seconds, early on, he offers a similarly quiet and propulsive beat while Bailey matches its pace, stumbles out of it, and then strums chords with charming nonchalance. They’re in complete concentration here, but the music feels like a loping conversation between longtime friends.  

Motian once reflected that when performing in the Bill Evans Trio, he was “more in the supportive role rather than one-third of the voice.” That’s never the case here; he and Bailey are in a constant, impressionistic dialogue. Three minutes in, he taps on an opening hi-hat and hints at something of a swinging groove, but it glides into something harder to pin down. His erratic strikes make way for Bailey’s own agitated chords, and the two work in tandem to come out of this clanging with balletic grace.

Their synchronicity embodies two key ideas that excited Bailey for decades: a love for silence, and “an impatience with the gruesomely predictable.” Bailey and Motian treat silence, ultimately, as a third instrument. After 10 minutes, Bailey hits a series of circuitous melodies that Motian pounds his toms alongside, but then they play at a much lower volume. With Motian’s soft ride cymbal and Bailey’s squirming guitar, our ears are attuned to the relative quietude—the way it takes up the space and makes the instruments feel subordinate to its presence. That attention to dynamics has an uncanny parallel with the underground rock music of its time. One can draw a straight line from the duo’s poetic noodling to records from /" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Jackie-O Mother and Storm & Stress. A lot of it can be chalked up to Motian’s jazz-inflected drumming, but it’s also the result of the even-keeled, genre-agnostic atmosphere.

Duo in Concert also features a second gig that took place in New York. It is only on the digital version of the record, and perhaps understandably so, given its low fidelity. Its appeal isn’t far from Bailey’s Music and Dance, where one is confronted with not just the space that the artists are in, but the distance between listener and performance, as mediated by subpar recording equipment. In these 46 minutes, the room tone looms, the mixing is unbalanced, but an evocative intimacy pokes through. The two still play with thoughtfulness and verve, but everything is draped in an everyday veneer, like you’re hearing them from a bar at the other end of a venue. It paints the recording not as a Holy Grail, but as an extension of their normal practices. “I do the same thing more or less every day,” Bailey once remarked. “And sometimes I go out and do it in public.”  

When “Duo in Concert (New York)” ends, it does so without any big climax. There’s a moment of pause before people clap, and it’s presumably so people can be sure the set is actually complete. That moment of uncertainty speaks to Bailey’s modus operandi, as he saw improvisation as a “segment of a continuous process.” He even declared that playing the end of any piece made him feel disgusted. It’s a dramatic proclamation, but one that speaks to Bailey’s and Motian’s lives as artists—their animating force is their ongoing commitment. Duo in Concert is consequently phenomenal not just because the music itself is great, but because every second constitutes a moment of instinctive, instantaneous decision-making—a lifetime of improvisation distilled into every measure.



Edited by snobb - 27 Nov 2023 at 9:54am
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