Quite by chance, I've just been listening to some music and reading a novel which seem appropriate to the season in the best possible way. Normally I try and avoid 'Christmasy' material like the proverbial plague (speaking of which, by the way, I recently discovered the song 'Darkness' by Scott Walker, part of a project based on the Biblical plagues of Egypt; absolutely gripping, and simultaneously hilarious and terrifying in best Walker fashion), but here it was satisfying to be listening and reading to these things at the relevant time of year.
The music was Derek Bailey's records Standards and Ballads, which were prompted when Derek played requests at a dinner party in New York at Christmas, 2001. The second record is the more well known, and was recorded in London, but Standards, released this year, is a slightly earlier New York session that was intended to come out as Ballads until Derek decided he was unhappy with the results and that he wanted to have another go. The result is a very rare and intriguing insight into his working methods. There is stunning playing on both CDs, but on Standards, Bailey plays in his usual way for the majority of the time, appending a brief run through a standard tune at the end of every improvisation. At the second session, the standards are interspersed much more regularly through the playing, giving rise to a fascinating middle ground when Derek gets close to a given tune, but before he has begun it in earnest. What is really interesting is that he did not hit upon this approach first time; which is not to say that the second session is any less improvised, merely that a different set of objectives was in place by then. The result of both sessions now being available is a great and beautiful lesson in the nature of improvisation, revealing its strengths but also warning us against any lazy assumptions about 'sponaneity'.
Speaking of Bailey, I discovered this week that my friends Samantha Rebello and Olivier Rodriquez live right around the corner from 14 Downs Road, Hackney, where Derek lived for many many years. I paid a visit there this Monday just to see the house, never having visited while Derek was alive. It was a moving experience, grounding Bailey's world for me in a place I can now imagine and visualise.
The novel in question was Ya! by Douglas Woolf, a writer I discovered through the printed enthusiasm of JH Prynne. ('This is the absolute prose of our time...') As with my visit to Bailey's house, this is also a kind of pilgrimage story, a semi-autobiographical road novel about the protagonist's journey across the United States to be with his daughter at Christmas. Full of acute observation, some quasi-Beckettian physical humour and a hint almost of magic realism, the novel is written with the lightest of touches but is one of the most affecting and funniest things I have read for a long time. I look forward to rereading it soon - highly recommended, if you can get hold of a copy.