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Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation by Ben Watson

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This book is “designed to be contradictory, argumentative and unfinished” Ben Watson announces in his introduction. An uneven mix of criticism, Marxist theory, digression and insult is undoubtedly the book as Watson describes it, though not in the provocative way he suggests.

The best of it comes early on, where Watson allows the guitarist and free-improv avatar to reminisce in long block quotes about his English wartime childhood and early professional years spent playing dance music in ballrooms and pit orchestras. Bailey comes across as a dry wit refreshingly free of ideology or hot air: “When somebody says they would rather work in a factory than play music that they don’t like or don’t believe in, the answer’s obvious. It means they’ve never worked in a factory.”

Watson, sadly enough, emerges as Bailey’s dreary foil. As his book begins to consider the mature Bailey, Watson squeezes his subject out by packing in hefty passages of Marxist criticism (derived from his critical hero, Adorno) and his own old record reviews-reproduced whole often enough that a reader could be forgiven for thinking that they’d accidentally purchased The Ben Watson Reader. Watson also habitually buries fascinating points in his staid and maddeningly inconsistent Marxist lectures, which should reliably turn 10 potential listeners away from Bailey’s startling music for every one they snare.

Readers will value some of Watson’s fo-cused observations-his systematic reviews of every Company production Bailey ever put together, for example-but they’ll have to dig for them. Those looking for a comprehensive view of the guitarist won’t find it here.