early a decade ago, Derek Bailey lamented his own longevity: “The longer you play, the worse it gets. You have more reliable devices, and they become more offensive in some way.” He was referring to the psyche, but his body must have sympathized. After a lifetime of peculiar contortions, Bailey was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome earlier this year. Though advised to undergo minor surgery on the right hand, he chose to acknowledge the inevitability of this degeneration and use the disability as an innovation. Unable to use a pick, he began to rehearse odd fingerings and strumming effects in order to recreate the pioneering atonal investigations he first developed in the late 1960s. Carpal Tunnel, a document of his progress over the span of three months, is therefore an anomaly in an anomalous career, evading technical precision in favor of alarmingly personal affect.
This means that the initial experiments are muted, timid, and only intermittently engaging. His trademark chromatic patches are dull and muddy. The hesitancy is particularly striking given Bailey’s ferocious stoicism over the last several years. In the late 1990s, his solo gigs seemed mythic to the point of parody. A lone revolutionary, eyes shielded by collegiate frames, crouched in a wooden chair with a blood-red guitar, terrorizing his own limbs and instruments, effortlessly presiding over every aspect of his performance: the disfigured finger movements, the fractured harmonics, the crackling reverb. For someone who crowed about the invaluable merits of free improvisation, he often appeared indomitable and scrupulously prepared. On his albums, he toggled tirelessly between volcanic funk (Mirakle, Tohjinbo) and ominous delicacy (Viper, the solo CD-Rs).
After this admirable period, it’s disarming to hear him begin an album with an admonition: Prepare yourself for “inaccurate” or “partly successful” passages. Surely he’s being somewhat facetious, since all his conventional sounds are rendered faithfully (however uncertainly) in the very first track. Framed as a letter to a friend, Bailey recounts the details of his disorder over a slab of spectral drones and steel filaments. It’s a strange conjunction: Wiry clatter splashes against the back of his throat amidst ramblings on Quebecois topography. His voice and performance tend to get more nervous or sporadic when he alludes to his debilitation, as though his damaged wrist also impedes his thoughts. The playing may be restricted and untrained—halfway between a guitar lesson and belabored noodling—but it also compresses his concerns into a strangulated series of tones and distortions.
Two weeks in, arpeggios and scales appear fleetingly. The strumming takes on new duration and dexterity, and a deliberate proficiency emerges gradually. In five weeks, his facility with the volume pedal is as nuanced as it ever was. At times, his notoriously inscrutable playing even makes some brief nods to the proto-bop of Charlie Christian. By the end, his serrated anti-riffs are faster, clearer, louder, polyvalent, and virtually indistinguishable from his pre-Carpal recordings. In short, the charm of this album lies mostly in its sequence and process; the concept sounds better than it sounds.
Obviously, this is not the first album to chronicle various obstructions to technical virtuosity. Django Reinhardt became the most influential jazz guitarist of the twentieth century, even though he laid claim to two non-functioning fingers, a hobble, two paralyzing addictions, and a penchant for hedgehog meat. Peetie Wheetstraw once mauled murderous piano dirges with a broken arm while praying to Satan and partaking in lethal train races. Even Def Leppard’s drummer had a concept-album comeback. And yet, listening to Carpal Tunnel, the strongest resemblance may be to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In a Room, in which Lucier transforms his jagged stutter into a miasma of melting atmospherics and elegant oscillations. On both albums, a moderate liability becomes an oversized virtue. In retrospect, perhaps all of Bailey’s recordings are about the body’s limitations. More than any other performer, his techniques elicit an amplified and visceral understanding of how he plays: rotating joints, stretched ligaments, muscular contractions, calcified skin. I expect to see strings indelibly etched into my hands every time I hear this album. My only fear is that Bailey will further mutilate his body to challenge himself and his listeners. Lord knows the improv scene doesn’t need any more fetishes.
Reviewed by: Alex Linhardt
Reviewed on: 2005-11-03