The Way We Get By: James Elkington is Diving Deep Into Improvised Music

And he’s giving special attention to Derek Bailey.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

There are two different ways of approaching this [quarantine]: You’re either in a position to completely indulge yourself and read or watch something that’s extremely gratifying but is in no way educational. That’s what I had in mind when I was thinking about recommending this book about the Fall [Dave Simpson’s The Fallen: Searching for the Missing Members of the Fall]. 

But if you suddenly found yourself with time on your hands, then perhaps you could immerse yourself in a type of music you’ve always been interested in but haven’t had the time or space to do. And that’s what I’ve recently been able to do with free improvised music.

It’s something that I’ve always appreciated and have tooled around with, but perhaps haven’t listened to the building blocks of what that approach is. And it’s the sort of music that’s different from other types of music in that the listener has to actually extend to it, and meet it halfway, which is not how most of us listen to music. It seems increasingly you don’t really have to put that much effort into it. In fact, if you’re not even sure what you’re listening to, someone will tell you exactly what the reference points are, and what’s good or bad.

With free improvised music, you have to bring a lot more to it yourself. It demands concentration of a type that I’m not sure people really give themselves the space to have. Some people might suddenly find they have the time on their hands to get into something like this.

I’ve always liked Derek Bailey, but I’ve liked him in a sort of general way. I would listen to a little bit of it, and then I would find myself, as much as I liked it, switching off. Five minutes of it would go by without me having paid attention to it. It would wander and wander back. I always kind of wondered why that was. I liked the music. It is a little alien. It does seem like a new language in some ways. But I would get fatigued.

He made a record for the Tzadik label called Ballads, where he actually played some jazz standards using his particular approach. The first thing that most people think when they hear Derek Bailey is “Is this guy for real? Is this even music?” Ballads, I think he actually later on said that he didn’t like it or wished he hadn’t made it. He thought it was maybe pandering or something. It’s interesting because he’s playing songs that you might know. And when you hear his approach to these tunes that you already know, you can begin to fathom his process a little bit. 

In the last year or two, a record label called Honest Jon’s in England has reissued a lot of Bailey’s stuff. They’ve recently become available again on vinyl, and as a result I think a lot of that is being reappraised. I thought that in light of that, it would be a good time for me to really engage with it and make more of a study of it, to try and see if I could get any more out of it than I had previously gotten.

The record that I would recommend is one of the first ensemble groups that he had, which was called The Music Improvisation Company. This one is a four-piece band: Derek Bailey on guitar, Jamie Muir on percussion, who was also briefly a member of King Crimson, Hugh Davies on electronics, and Evan Parker playing saxophone. It’s a quiet and ruminative record. Sometimes it’s difficult to even hear if anything is going on, but there are these chance meetings of tone and rhythm in it that you wouldn’t hear in other types of music.

I have found with close listening and careful attention — and this is going to sound pretty hippie — it does sort of have a strangely consciousness-broadening effect. It does feel a little bit like a drug, and I think it’s because the combination of strange things happening musically but also the amount of attention in your brain trying to make connections, because that’s what human beings tend to do. The effort that you’re making meets the music halfway, and something sort of strange happens in your brain. Or at least that’s what’s been happening to me, and it’s an effect I don’t really get from a lot of other types of music.

I think it does calm me. In order to actually get anything out of it at all, you have to not be checking your email or having the TV on at the same time. Or even be cooking. That’s one of the wonderful things about this type of music is that I’m sure everyone has a different reaction to it. But I’ve found that to get anything at all out of it, I have to literally sit still and listen to it, which is something that — even though I’m involved in music, and most of my life is music — I don’t do that very often anymore! A lot of people don’t really get to do that, or don’t make time to do that. But this is the type of music that demands you do that, so you do it.

Which isn’t to say that I listen to it all the time, because it can be fatiguing! Often one side of an LP will set me up for a few days. I would also suggest as a companion to that record, there’s a book by Ben Watson called Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. That book, if you’re interested in learning more about that kind of music, it sets the stage well. Plus, Derek Bailey is fairly hilarious and quotable at all times. He was an iconoclast to the last. So there you go: a slightly patronizing improvised music starter pack. That’s what I’m presenting here.

For me it’s not easy to find that half-hour, because we have a 6-year-old and a 6-month-old. There’s a lot going on here at home. Just trying to keep everyone educated and kind of entertained is a job in itself. But if I can find half an hour, that would be a good way to spend it.

The coronavirus has hit many people financially, and it’s been especially tough on musicians who rely on touring to support themselves. If you’re able and inclined, check out James Elkington’s Bandcamp and order some vinyl or whatever he’s got on offer. His excellent new album is Ever-Roving Eye.

Chicago songwriter and guitarist James Elkington — who has collaborated with everyone from Richard Thompson to Jeff Tweedy to Tortoise — recorded his sophomore album at Wilco’s Loft, expanding upon his celebrated 2017 debut Wintres Woma as well as his recent production and arrangement work for the likes of Steve Gunn, Nap Eyes, and Joan Shelley.