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. Highly recommended. ~ Brian Olewnick
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