Improvisation it’s nature and practice in music, by Derek Bailey

Guitar player Derek Bailey began improvising in the early 1960s. In writing about its various forms he managed to describe improvisation and portray its ubiquity with respect to individual performers;

Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description… (Bailey 1992, p.ix)


In saying that improvisation is always changing Bailey focuses on its ability to be unpredictable and fresh. The opening chapters of this book offer a concise analysis of Indian music, Flamenco, Baroque, Organ music and Rock music. The chapters are enlivened by conversations and interviews with musicians working within these idioms. Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead offers his thoughts on group improvisation;


…the sense of individual control disappears and you are working at another level entirely. Sometimes this feels to me as though you don’t have to really think about what’s happening. Things just flow. It’s kind of hard to report on but it’s a real thing. I mean we’ve checked it out with each other and after twenty-five years of exploring some of these outer limits of musical weirdness this is stuff that we pretty much understand intuitively but we don’t have language to talk about it. (Bailey 1992 p.42)


Garcia represents an interesting case study for Bailey and for any reader on improvisation because of his experience of Alzheimers Disease and his recovery. He describes having to re-learn neural connections between his thoughts and actions. There are many implications of this experience on his improvised music. Foremost seems to be Garcia’s sense of a change of perspective. He states that he plays better than he used to because of the more present need to readdress his musical position. The discussion on how an improvising group remains fresh and unpredictable after years of playing together, sits comfortably with points raised in other chapters. Particularly those points regarding freshness and the immediacy of intuition. In the chapter on Baroque music Bailey talks to Harpsichordist and ensemble director, Lionel Salter. Again Bailey focuses on the intuition of the improviser(s) and publishes Salters comment on the composer / performers relationship with the score / improvisation;


When it came to slow movements particularly, of course, you find that the notes written down represent a very bare outline, and people who try to play … let’s say Handel sonatas, strictly according to the text, end up with something, at which Handel would probably have laughed uproariously, because he never expected it to be played cold-bloodedly, just like that. In those days composers expected to perform their own works and sometimes out of sheer lack of time they wouldn’t write everything down on paper, they’d just put a thing down to remind themselves that here they were going to do something rather special. (Salter in Bailey 1992 p.20~21)


Bailey’s book on improvisation was originally published in 1980 and revised in 1992. Bailey defines two main areas within improvisation. This helps classification of the improvisers he discusses.


I have used the terms ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non-idiomatic’ to describe the two main forms of improvisation. Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or baroque – and takes its identity from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called ‘free’ improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. (Bailey 1992, p.xi~xii)


So what are the other concerns
that Bailey is referring to? It seems that his musical output is essentially concerned with free improvisation and his writing leads toward a clearer comprehension that free improvisation can occur without the apparent clutter of stylistic categorisation usually attached to idiomatic improvisation. Bailey acknowledges that definitions of improvisation vary widely and he dissects his own definition of it by overcoming the classification of idiom. His book on improvisation leads the reader toward the view that only free (as opposed to idiomatic) improvisation has the ability to:

renew and change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation (Bailey 1992 p.142)


During his life Bailey became increasingly uncomfortable with the use of musical systems for his own improvisations and I suspect that from John Zorn’s perspective Bailey is an artist much like Bill Frisell who disengages from the tussle of Zorn’s games but nonetheless plays intensively throughout. Derek Bailey’s participation in Cobra: Game Pieces, Vol. 2
(Zorn et al 2002) in 2002 should be understood in comparison to his collaboration with John Zorn and bassist William Parker on the three track improvised recording Harras (Bailey, Zorn & Parker, 1995).

The application of Bailey’s terminology is useful as a comprehensive exercise in classification, which simplifies data handling for the researcher. However, it is easy to meet complications once any such categorisations become applied outside the context of improvisation and it’s analysis. For example The Shape of Jazz to Come
(Coleman et al 1987) can be categorised alongside Spy Vs Spy (Zorn et al 1989) as idiomatic improvisation. On the other hand The Moat Recordings (Jospeph Holbrooke Trio 2006) by Bailey’s own Joseph Holbrooke Trio is very clearly free or non-idiomatic improvisation because although the musicians have come from a jazz background the music no longer fits within that idiom. Furthermore the musical output is not scored or prepared in advance of its performance. However, unless it is popular with the general public, non-idiomatic improvisation is frequently categorised by catalogues and libraries according to broader vague descriptions like alternative and contemporary, which reinforces the contradiction of classifying music with a term that implies that it is unclassifiable.

BAILEY, D. (1992). Improvisation: its nature and practice in music
. London, British Library National Sound Archive.

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