Derek Bailey – lot 74 (Incus)
Elliott Sharp – Octal: Book Two (CFG 004)
Respectively the alpha and the omega of guitar free improvisation, the late London-based Derek Bailey (1930-2005) and the very much alive New Yorker, Elliott Sharp, offer two variants on a solo program with these notable discs. Recorded in 1974, Lot 74 demonstrates Bailey’s mastery of European-style free music, which he had helped midwife into existence almost a decade earlier. The reissue is particularly notable because on two tracks he uses an unamplified 19-string instrument. In contrast, on Octal, Sharp’s axe is an eight-string electro-acoustic guitar-bass. Furthermore, the seven tracks use no electronic effects except for an e-bow and some valve compression and reverb added during mix-down. That phrase pinpoints the difference between Sharp’s 2009 improvisations and Bailey’s, recorded 35 years earlier. The British guitarist’s tracks were taped at home then transferred to LP at a plant where the cutting engineer initially played the tape upside-down. With modern technology, Sharp recorded, mixed and mastered Octal in his home studio.
Although Octal’s texture is more aggressive and percussive than Lot 74, Bailey proves that he can crunch notes, frail lines and snap strings on the two tracks featuring the 13 additional strings. Plus on “Together” he not only distorts and flanges guitar lines into fuzzy fortissimo, but also vocally howls high- pitched enough to give heavy metal singers competition. Bailey’s instantly identifiable style is most broadly showcased on the 22-minute title track. Contrapuntally intertwining tones while simultaneously deconstructing them, his banjo-like plucks and flattened twangs resonate. Using slurred fingering and flattened licks, he separates each tone so that it vibrates inwardly.
If Bailey’s improvisations appear inner directed, then Sharp’s are mercurial and tough. 20 years Bailey’s junior, Sharp’s playing is informed by rock as well as jazz and notated sounds. For example, he mixes bluesrock thump with stately polyrhythms on “Fluctuations of the Horizon”, exposing a pedal-point continuum after the folksy exposition. With piezo pickups isolating each string, his waterfall of notes divides on “P-branes and D-branes” so that the agitato lines seem to come from two guitars at once – one high-pitched and the other basso – as percussive rebounds provide added weight. Finally two-handed tapping meets near-flamenco strumming. Alternately ramping waveform oscillations and vibrating fortissimo pitches animate “Inverted Fields” with feedback loops giving the piece an industrial edge. Eventually metal-slider impelled string licks narrow the theme to undulating drones.
While much has changed in improvised music during the past 25 years, the discordant guitar experiments Bailey pioneered helped create the sonic climate within which Sharp operates.