It’s not as though Derek Bailey hadn’t given a hint or two before. On his wonderful Drop Me Off at 96th (on Scatter), he tantalized listeners with a couple of bars of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Even those who might have preferred that he stood steadfast and true to the non-idiomatic free improv “tradition” might have wavered slightly. Still, for those so inclined, Ballads might be a bittersweet experience. They might prefer to understand that Bailey was quite capable of playing in a traditionally, romantically beautiful manner but feel that he had no need to prove it, rather having him wend his unique way through a strange landscape. However, met on its own terms, Ballads is stunningly gorgeous, lovely melodies like “Laura” being passionately stroked even as they abut against Bailey’s questioning angularities and brusque, impolite commentary. The pure sound he elicits from his acoustic guitar is mouthwatering, so reverberant and alive. When he absolutely wrenches the melody of “Stella By Starlight” from the poor body of his instrument, it’s enough to leave one gasping. And longtime Bailey fans might simply shake their heads in disbelief when he strums with schmaltz — as well as beauty — the sentimental theme from “My Buddy” before taking it on a circuitous walk. Whether one is glad or distressed that he chose to dip his toes into these waters, Ballads is a singularly lovely recording, one that certainly stands out in Bailey’s oeuvre and one that is nigh impossible not to smile about and linger over.
What an unexpected treasure trove this turned out to be! Derek Bailey’s earliest extant recordings, all solo guitar, none previously heard. Although still very much under the influence of Webern, Bailey was already committed to the idea of non-idiomatic free improvisation, even if he arguably hadn’t quite achieved that goal by this time. Compared to his work from only a couple of years later, these pieces are considerably more on the melodic and jazz-tinged end of things (he even comes close to quoting Monk!), although even so, they certainly would have gotten him unceremoniously removed from most stages in 1966-1967. Aside from their inherent beauty as stand-alone works, part of the fascination of this disc is the way certain pieces clearly anticipate avant-garde rock trends of the next several years. For instance, “G.E.B.,” which opens the album, sounds very much akin to Don Van Vliet’s delicate instrumental tracks like “Peon” and “One Red Rose That I Mean.” Similarly, the closing improvisations bear a marked similarity to Robert Fripp’s sparse, spatially aware playing on “Moonchild” from the first King Crimson album. But the nascent abstract and almost insectival aspect that Bailey fans would come to know and love is surely present as well on gnarly, knotty works like “Bits,” which also incorporates early explorations into the use of feedback. And “Practising: Wow & Stereo” would still cause the hackles to rise on the necks of the great majority of jazz fans, lo, these 35 years hence. Pieces for Guitar is an invaluable artifact in the archeology of free improvised music and a must for any fans of the genre. Highly recommended.
-Brian Olewnick, allmusic.com