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Guitarist Derek Bailey, Free-Form Innovator Dies

Guitarist Derek Bailey, whose radical guitar playing revolutionized improvisational music, died Dec. 25 at his home in London of complications from a motor neuron disease, according to The New York Times. He was 75.

Bailey grew up playing jazz, but ultimately developed his own style of free-form music that combined elements of funk, experimental rock, classical and avant-garde jazz. He was at the forefront of the so-called English free improvisational movement, which influenced the likes of Pat Metheny, George Lewis and Jim O’Rourke. The aesthetic was based on the idea of layering small pockets of sound – often unmelodic and atonal. He used his guitar as a sound-making device, rather than a strict music-making device, circumventing the apparent sonic limitations of the instrument that other musicians faced.

Bailey’s playing has impacted music in numerous genres, from punk to techno to classical. In recent years, he has collaborated with musicians including Pat Metheny, Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen, London jungle D.J. Ninj and Japanese avant-rock duo the Ruin.

Bill Shoemaker described Bailey’s tremendous musical legacy in an August 1997 JazzTimes article: “Bailey…has become a patriarch for a generation of envelope-pushing guitarists… His influence in improvised music [is] comparable to John Cage’s in what used to be called experimental music.”

Bailey was born in Sheffield, England to a musical family. His grandfather was an amateur musician and his uncle played guitar and worked in a music shop, where Bailey first studied guitar as a boy.

In the 1950s, Bailey played guitar in local jazz clubs and theatres, even playing in the pit orchestra at comedy shows for a time. The following decade, Bailey began experimenting with purely improvisational music. In 1966, he moved to London, where he often performed solo and with the Spontaneous Musical Ensemble, a musical collective that played free-form music. John Eyles of the BBC described Bailey’s early live free-jazz performances as “teetering on the edge of chaos.”

In the 1970s, Bailey recorded for Incus, a label he began with saxophonist Evan Parker. For three decades, Bailey recorded more than a dozen albums for Incus, including 1995’s Trio Playing, a critically acclaimed free improvisation album with tuba player Oren Marshall and saxophonist John Butcher.

In recent years, Bailey’s playing was curtailed by the onset of a motor neuron ailment. His last album, Carpal Tunnel, was released last year on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Bailey is survived by his wife, Karen Brookman of London and Barcelona, and his son, Simon, of San Diego.

Originally Published