Derek Bailey's final years, as his muscular control and dexterity diminished, were marked by the same, bold honesty that defined the career of the titan of British free improvisation. He was a contrarian, more often playing counter to than merrily along with the many musicians he encountered along his path. He enjoyed obstacles and surprises. And while certainly seeing his hands deteriorate could not be easy for a guitarist, from a professional front he seems to have approached it as a hurdle, but not a detriment.
Bailey relocated to Spain at the end of his life where he continued to play, and through the efforts of his wife Karen Brookman that work is being released through "The Barcelona Chronicles" on Incus, the label Bailey founded with Evan Parker which is now managed by Brookman. A Silent Dance is the third of the Barcelona releases and Bailey's second record with pianist Augustí Fernández, and it's one of the most surprising releases in Bailey's extensive discography. Recorded in May, 2005, seven months before his death, it is for the most part one of the quietest, most delicate albums to bear his name. His hollow-body guitar is low in the mix, gently scraped and barely amplified for most of the long first untitled track. Fernández plays brief but lovely phrases, not hesitant but always leaving room for Bailey to step forward. This is the sort of dynamic Bailey thrived on. Maybe he was physically tired, maybe he was having trouble warming up, but even still he no doubt was enjoying listening to Fernández respond to his not opening throttle. Bailey had an uncanny ability to shape pieces as much by what he didn't play as what he did, and the half hour of quietude seems (whatever else was going on) as another way to play that card.
He pushes tempo and volume only slightly, stirring just a little more for the remaining ten minutes, letting a full minute of quiet feedback ring to end the piece. That seems to have been a wake-up call for the second piece and the remaining ten minutes, which suddenly get quite loud. Bailey distorts his guitar, playing with the tricky resonances of the hollow, amplified body. He lets strings resonate until acoustic tone turns to electronic whine, he rubs the guitar body to coax snarls and purrs. Fernández responds (he is enormously responsive throughout the live set) with flurries inside the keyboard case. As with the preceding part of the program, it still exists in miniature, only now magnified.
The dynamic breadth, of course, cannot be attributed wholly to Bailey, or to his physical condition. The duo's previous release, Barcelona (recorded in 2001 and released the following year on Hopscotch), certainly shows a defter Bailey, but shows some similar tendencies as well. "Botafumeiro" and "Casa Leopoldo" anticipate the stillness of A Silent Dance, and together comprise a little less than half the album. But there is here more grit, more fretboard under the fingernails. Bailey excelled in duet but didn't play so often with pianists as with other instrumentalists. Fernández, however, is an excellent catalyst (and catcher's mitt) for Bailey's quick-witted playing. He is able to set forth onto a beautiful, or muscular, or curious, or miniscule passage, fully engaged yet ready to stop on a dime, ready to change course with, or against, or independent of Bailey's whims. The notion of free improvisation Bailey championed requires, if nothing else, a full commitment at all moments, something both the 2001 and 2005 sessions, if in different ways, show strongly.
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