Derek Bailey (Joseph Holbrooke)
Derek Bailey was one of the most vocal proponents of free improvisation, recording dozens of albums over a career that lasted over four decades. His contributions to free improvisation have been vast and multifaceted, including a book called Improvisation: its nature and practice in music, a valuable historical and philosophical text.
The first group in which Bailey freely improvised was Joseph Holbrooke, composed of Bailey, bassist Gavin Bryars, and percussionist Tony Oxley. Based in Sheffield, England, the group was formed in 1963. The group started out playing modern jazz; when they disbanded in 1966, they were playing completely improvised music. It is important to emphasize that this shift was organic, based on their emotional responses to traditional jazz rather than on intellectualization about it. Oxley summed it up: “The exclusion of the jazz vocabulary was an emotional act of feeling … when you're wearing chains, you don't become aware of them through intellectual process. You can feel them.” Bailey refers to the process of replacing “inherited things”, which were “stilted, moribund and formal” with things that felt “logical and right”. For the men in Joseph Holbrooke, the solution was in leaving behind the jazz idiom, in which they felt trapped, in favor of a more suitable frame of reference for their work.
But to create a new idiom would be to establish new boundaries. Therefore they sought to create music which was non-idiomatic, allowing them to draw from their personal influences at will. Bailey was interested in the music of Schoenberg and Webern, particularly in potential for improvising based on intervals rather than on chord-modes; Bryars would later become a well-known composer, and his study of the music of Cage, Messiaen and Stockhausen began during this period; and Oxley had an affinity for the modern American jazz of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor. Their interests undoubtedly overlapped, but this is the general picture outlined by Bailey. Once the decision was made to remove the restrains imposed by composition, the three musicians were able to explore these interests in a mutually satisfying way, to listen and learn from each other through improvisation.
Unfortunately only one recording of the original Joseph Holbrooke has ever been issued: a 10-minute recording of John Coltrane's “Miles' Mode”, issued on a CD with interviews and other information. Perhaps other recordings exist, although Bryars is doubtful of this; we can only hope that, if they exist, such historically important recordings will eventually be issued.
Bailey's commitment to free improvisation continued up until his death in 2005. Many of Bailey's other projects involved exploring group and solo free improvisation; his work with the Music Improvisation Company from 1968-1971 is also particularly noteworthy as an early example of free improvisation, as well as for its excellent musicianship.