This is one of my two choice improv reissues of the year (notwithstanding Solar Records’ wonderful Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry: Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962) – the other being Free Jazz Group Wiesbaden – Frictions/Frictions Now. Both albums were recorded in the period 1969-74, and both in various ways play on tensions between musical organisation and nascent freedoms.
Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey first met in London in 1971, and first played together in 1973 when Bailey guested at a Braxton quartet concert in Paris, which opened with a duo piece. The Wigmore Hall concert of 30 June 1974 was their next public performance, and Braxton’s first official date in Britain.
This reissue presents the entire show – 77 minutes of analogue concert recordings – minus the rehearsal extracts that were included on earlier vinyl editions: these are now available on the “scrapbook” album Fairly Early with Postscripts (Emanem 4027).
These rehearsals, held the previous day, established that Bailey didn’t want to play notated compositions, and that Braxton wasn’t comfortable with free improvisation. So a compromise was reached. Each set would feature a sequence of six predetermined ‘areas’ of improvisation—staccato sounds on “Area 2”, sustained sounds on “Area 6”, repeated motifs on “Area 10”, and so on, with just one ‘area’ per set left open for duo improvisation plus one designated solo: “Area 4” for Bailey in the first set, “Area 9” for Braxton in the second. Each set was played without a break.
Some improv is conversation, some negotiation. If “Area 1” falls in the latter category, then it’s Bailey who makes the most concessions. Where Braxton is flighty and lyrical, Bailey is barbed as per usual but seemingly reticent, excepting brief irruptive pedal-swells of volume. The same rapport is sustained in the quieter “Area 2”, Bailey now abrading Braxton’s birdcall clarinet.
When Braxton switches to tenor for the open-form “Area 3”, Bailey responds with chopped-out chords and violent picks around softer finger lifts. But these initial spikes of energy soon dissipate, and the duo seek rapprochement through intense low-temperature dialogue. The tempered dynamics of the exchange make it compulsively listenable. When performers are this alert and mutually attentive, their efforts translate directly to beguilement.
Bailey’s solo, “Area 4”, is taken as an opportunity to sift and scrutinise the moment. Braxton, rejoining on contrabass clarinet in “Area 5”, underscores the close grain of Bailey’s flicks, flecks and stippling. Bailey now sounds more melodic, Braxton more and more accommodating with silences for Bailey’s fretwork.
“Area 6” locates stillness of a sort – wavering, tensile swells of electro-acoustics from Bailey’s pedals and tight-lipped trilling from Braxton. For performers of such forceful and contrasting personalities, the ending of the first set is remarkably close to ambient.
At the opening of the second set, in “Area 7” and “Area 8” only, Bailey played a guitar with, as the liner notes say: “about nineteen strings, two of which were ‘contra-bass’ ones that went around his feet”. This he fed through a small practice amplifier. On “7” Braxton plays flute in airy abstractions, and reeds breathy as pan pipes to accompany the metallic rustling of those apparently loose, looping strings.
On “Area 8” Bailey plays while de- and re-tuning, Braxton hesitantly pecking around, moving form trilling to conjoined lyricism. Bailey refocuses on a taut response, only for Braxton to take flight, briefly essaying a jazzy swing feel. His alto solo on “Area 9” alternates chewiness with a thin drizzle of notes that all, ultimately, compacts to a kernel of hoarse constricted blowing.
“Area 10” lightens the mood. Braxton reverts to flights of liquid lyricism, while Bailey more quietly dissects underlying complexities. But the open-form “Area 11” is the longest, most expansive section, the duo initially sounding comfortable, but soon pushing back on one another. Bailey curt and concise as ever, Braxton swaps soft flutings for rilling alto saxophony.
And so to the last piece, “Area 12”, which Braxton surveys with puckered sourness while Bailey exploits small-scale amplification to abstract crabbed picking – a future-proof conclusion, notably free of any hint of conclusion or compromise.
Anthony Braxton flute, clarinet, soprano & contrabass clarinets, sopranino & alto saxophones; Derek Bailey amplified guitar, 19-string (approx) guitar.
John Russell, Phil Durrant, John Butcher – Conceits.
Free Jazz Group Wiesbaden – Frictions/Frictions Now.
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Procession.
Keith Jarrett – Sleeper – Tokyo, April 16, 1979.
Buy First Duo Concert direct from Emanem.