With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, this first duo meeting between British improvising guitarist Derek Bailey and American saxophonist Anthony Braxton seems highly significant. Back in June 1974, Bailey was a 44-year-old former session musician with over a decade of free improvisation under his belt and four years as a proprietor of the independent Incus label; he was a member of the groupings SME and Globe Unity Orchestra, with many links to Europe, but few across the Atlantic. Braxton was a 29-year-old wunderkind with some links to Europe (notably the former SME members Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland) but far more in his homeland. Although a capable improviser, in common with other Americans, he had a penchant for free jazz employing pre-composed material rather than for free improv.
When the two played their first duo concert on June 30th 1974 at London's Wigmore Hall, the combination of amplified guitar with assorted wind instruments (flute, sopranino or alto saxophone, soprano, B-flat, or contrabass clarinet) was not a common one, with the absence of bass or drums being noteworthy. In rehearsals, the two established their boundaries, Bailey not wanting to play notated compositions in unison, Braxton not wanting to improvise totally. As a compromise, each half of the set was divided into six areas (i.e.sections) to improvise in, with different areas being designated for such things as staccato sounds, sustained sounds, repeated motifs, open/unpredetermined, guitar solo, alto sax solo. While such designations mean the playing was not totally free, they are reminiscent of the "pieces" that drummer John Stevens devised for SME to use--his "Click Piece", "Sustain" etc. — so the idea would have been familiar to Bailey.
The use of the areas does keep the music varied and fresh, but is not too intrusive as each half plays continuously without gaps or clunky gear changes, so the music maintains a flow that feels natural and works — all seventy-seven minutes of the performance. Crucially, despite their differences, both Bailey and Braxton were skilful at that most vital aspect of improv, listening carefully to the other musician and finding an appropriate response. For Braxton, this involved exploiting the full range of his arsenal of instruments, for Bailey, doing what he was best at. This story ended happily: In 1976, Bailey convened his first Company week of freely improvised music, with the invited musicians including Braxton and fellow American Steve Lacy. It was a great success and, in future years, Americans including Leo Smith, George Lewis, John Zorn and Buckethead would play Company week. Gradually, the differing attitudes east and west of the Atlantic would converge. That process can be seen to have begun here with Bailey and Braxton. Yes, this recording is historic — but far more, too.
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