Review-Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation


One gets the sense that Ben Watson is itching for a fight, given his writerly penchant for polemic and confrontation. Readers of Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation don't have to wade into his 400-plus page biography of the great British guitarist, however, to perceive Watson's put-up-your-dukes method of critical inquiry: The story of "Free Improvisation"? (Capital letters and all?) Is it possible for one writer to tie up decades (millennia?) of multifarious, under-documented, pan-global musical practice in one neat narrative, placing Bailey persuasively at the middle of it all? Watson's strategic title prefigures the foundation of his tough-toned argument that Bailey's particular approach to music-making is rigidly exemplary of the (non)idiom of free improvisation, that his defiantly anti-compositional, anti-repetitive music is the bastion of the perennial avant-garde capable of contesting the hegemony of capitalism and the commodification of musical culture. On this front, Watson repeatedly suggests, no musical practice comes close to Bailey's. There is no doubt that the argument stems from a deep passion and commitment to the revolutionary possibilities of music and a strong identification with his subject. Ultimately, however, it's a tough argument to swallow, one that begs too many questions about the exclusion of other histories of liberatory music-making, and one that is tripped up by wayward digressions that ultimately obscure Bailey's story in favour of the author's polemical rants and political fixations.

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avant-garde, biographies, British music, Derek Bailey, free improvisation, guitarists