February 20, 2003

Ed's Underground

Print More

Long a flagship name of the improvisational jazz and avant garde scenes, Derek Bailey is best known for his abrasive, atonal solo guitar workouts, redefining the boundaries of his instrument while making some downright challenging music. No one ever really expected this innovator to release an album comprised entirely of covers, but nevertheless Ballads is just that.

The album consists of Bailey’s improvisatory takes on a set of jazz and popular standards, including some rather unusual choices like “Georgia on My Mind” and the theme to Gone With the Wind. Of course, these selections don’t ever sound like traditional covers. Instead, Bailey dispenses with by-rote imitation, using the standards only loosely, as a framework for his wild acoustic guitar excursions. Rarely do these songs even resemble the originals — traces of the source melody bubble up occasionally, but most of the album is just as abstract and free as the rest of Bailey’s catalogue.

The result is gorgeous. Bailey’s tone is perfect as each note rings out like a bell, and you can hear every reverberation in the guitar’s body and every quiver of the strings. His use of negative space is equally impressive, interspersing his notes with a weighty silence. The effect is an open, airy feel, characterized mostly by pretty restrained, introspective playing. And when Bailey really cuts loose with the torrent of notes he’s capable of, as he does on the remarkable “My Melancholy Baby,” it’s awe-inspiring, particularly given the contrast with the quieter passages.

Taken as a whole, Ballads is a truly incredible record. Bailey’s playing is flawless, deftly incorporating well-known tunes into his otherwise formless, emotionally charged improvisations. He infuses every note with all of his energy and feeling, bringing his instrument to life by the sheer force of his enthusiasm. And yet, the result never sounds too chaotic. It’s a beautiful record: alternately languid and intense, but always excitingly different.

Archived article by Ed Howard