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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

By Published: August 24, 2009

Broader Jazz Influences

In addition to guitarists, Nix grew up listening to a lot of Duke Ellington. Ellington was a composer. By way of example, his piece "Rocking In Rhythm" (1930), which includes a figure frequently employed by later bop pianists such as Bud Powell, is through-composed, written in sections. "I hadn't thought about that. I liked them [Ellington's records] when I was a kid. I used to listen to them all the time—Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Blanton. It's just great music, it sounds great. It feels great." A possible connection is that Nix's pieces are also frequently comprised of small neat sections through-composed in a single stream, with the main figure returning when appropriate. He says, "I'm thinking about theme and variations, the musical equivalent of trying to develop a topic. Some writer once said, 'If you have one true sentence, you can just keep going'—I think it was Hemingway."

Cecil Taylor is another major influence. "I just like his playing," says Nix. "He's like Ornette; he's very courageous. He's stuck to it. I liked it when he had Jimmy Lyons in the band. I like different things, different periods—I like his version of "What's New." He did that with Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons with the band in Scandinavia in '61, '62 something like that." The track is from a recording of a radio broadcast of a gig by Taylor and his quartet in Sweden on October 14, 1962. That tune appears to be available only on radio transcriptions, but two other tunes from the same gig, "Spontaneous Improvisation" and "Flamingo," are available on The Early Unit (Ingo, 1962).

"And 'Enter Evening'—that's a great recording. [There's] something about the music. I guess if you like something, it influences you in some way." "Enter Evening" is an 11-minute track from Unit Structures (Blue Note Records, 1966).

Avant-garde bassist William Parker, an early member of Nix's mid-'80s trio, joined Taylor in the early '90s in Taylor's "Feel Trio."

Of Thelonius Monk, Nix says, "I like his harmonic sense, the way he voiced chords. He had a great sense of humor. The way he played, he makes you laugh! His sense of humor is his point. His sound is quite deadpan. If you look at it, it's like James P Johnson, but it's more a way of playing. He was another original guy. He had a very uncompromising vision. He never compromised in his harmonic sense—he caught a lot of flak for that. People didn't want to hire him. There's that story that he and Miles had a fist fight on a record date, because Miles didn't want Monk to play behind him. On the solo, Miles told Monk to lay out. He didn't want to play with him and it [turned into] a fight!"

In saying, "It's more a way of playing," Nix is again using the phrase that is also his essential broader description of what harmolodics is, a way of simply using the available vocabulary and grammar.

"There was also that time when Kenny Dorham and Cecil Taylor—that record that Coltrane did called Coltrane Time in the early '60s, and Cecil was on it—I heard Kenny Dorham and Cecil Taylor almost got into a fight [because] Kenny Dorham made some crack about avant-garde." [The album was technically Taylor's session, but has been released under Coltrane's name as well as under Taylor's. It was first released under Taylor's name as Coltrane Time (United Artists, 1959).]

From the guitar perspective, perhaps the clearest influence on Nix is Jimmy Raney. Nix appears to confirm this, saying descriptively: "I just like the way he plays, his sound. His playing [has] sort of a whistle quality— just like it's a whistle, and it's Texas... [it's], if you like, lyric poetry." A recording of Raney playing "Autumn In New York" may show the link:




His Music

Not too long before leaving Coleman, Nix formed his own trio. "It was '84 or '85, somewhere there in the middle '80s. (Bassist) William Parker was with me for a while."

The first album by the Bern Nix Trio was Alarms And Excursions (New World Records, 1993). The record is a nine-track album, mainly of Nix compositions, but also with his distinctive take on a standard, "Just Friends."

He says, "All this stuff is stuff I keep in notebooks, [things I] accumulate. You know how you write something and you keep it on pieces of paper—and you try and shape it. So this is all the stuff I've been writing over the years."

The album was recorded with Fred Hopkins on bass and Newman Baker on drums. The album contains neat, intense and at times almost cinematic compositions. Hopkins is superb. The first track is a signature turn of Nix's, "Z Jam Blues." Nix says, "It's a play on words, on Duke Ellington's 'C Jam Blues.'" Even the music at the close of the main theme is perhaps a musical play on "C Jam Blues."

The track sees, at one point, Nix playing 3/4 over a 12/8 time signature background. Nix elaborates again on his treatment of time: "Any time changes are not consistently worked out. I don't think in terms of bar lines. It's more like an organic rhythm," he adds, alluding to the "biorhythm"' description of Robert Parker. "Time is elastic," he says. Nix also stresses the word "organic" in his discussion.

Growing up, Nix was also a fan of blues guitarist Freddie King, famous for his records on the Federal label, with songs like "Hideaway," from Let's Hide Away and Dance Away with Freddy King (Federal, 1961). Nix's track, "Driving Sideways Backwards," is a re-drawing of King's tune "Driving Sideways." He says the track was an experiment in melody and rhythm, the two main areas for exploration in harmolodics. The music sounds as though we are watching a vehicle skidding off to the side of a road, and maybe backwards a little, too. Another interesting track on the album is "Desert Storm," where the music gives you the feel of diving forward into a conflict.

Nix also scored a film. In 2002, a letter asking him to write a film score arrived in his mailbox. It was from Raymond Bally, the director of a proposed documentary about the American arts biographer James Lord, entitled A James Lord Portrait. Nix continues, "I wrote the film score for this movie about James Lord. He's a lovely guy. He's lived in Paris for maybe about the last 60 years. He's in his 80s now. He went to Paris after World War II and he had the ambition of becoming a novelist. As it turned out, he started writing memoirs.

"The thing is, he knows everybody. He befriended Picasso and then Picasso introduced him to Cocteau, who introduced him to Gertrude Stein. So he knew all these people. He wrote all these books and memoirs about these people. He was a better memoir writer than novelist! He befriended Alberto Giacometti—he was Giacometti's official biographer. So all his books are about these people—anybody [who was anybody] over the last sixty years—Jean Genet. I met him when we did the screening. He was a very quiet, unassuming kind of guy. So this film is a documentary on his life."

Although excerpts from the film are on YouTube, it has not been officially released. "But nobody wanted to release the film or do anything with it," says Nix.

"I guess (Lord's) written about five or six books—they're all memoirs about hanging out with these people. I started working on it in 2002, 2003. I went to the mailbox one day and I had a letter from the filmmaker Raymond with a check in it. He was telling me to start writing music. The [film's] cameraman used to work with Orson Welles. He also did a film with the guy who used to play organ with The Doors, Ray Manzerak."

Of The Doors in general, Nix displays his reverence for study: "I preferred the instrumental stuff more than the Jim Morrison [music] but I always thought they were probably one of the more interesting bands at that time. They (the instrumentalists) were a little bit more trained than Morrison."

Two of the tunes Nix wrote for A James Lord Portrait are on his Myspace site.

"To Paris" (mentioned above) is one, a typically concise yet flowing piece. "It's kind of like straight swing, but not exactly," says Nix. "I [wrote] seven or eight tunes—you get so immersed in it, at a certain point you can't deal with it anymore," he adds, trying to get familiar with the music again. "You spend such a long time... living with it."

"'The Plaster Bird'—that's from a scene in the film. They're showing Picasso's work and he's looking at this little bird Picasso made in the studio, and he looks at the bird and he's talking about it, so I called it "The Plaster Bird." It's on YouTube."

The "Plaster Bird" scene:

Nix reflects on the art world: "It's such a lot of money—thousands and thousands for a little bauble Picasso put together in the studio—I'm not demeaning the work he's talking about, but... the amount of money!"

"I just took the tape recorder one day and I started improvising. The bassist on the tracks was Bill Zola. He was in my old band. The drummer was Adrian Valosin. He played with Joe Morello at one time. Bill used to play with Dave Holland, he used to study with him."

Nix's most recent album is Low Barometer (Tomkins Square, 2006), a solo guitar album of tunes performed on a steel string acoustic guitar. The music ranges from airy chordal sounds to the vibrato twangs that punctuate the elegant track, "Love's Enigma," all played with a Webern-like sparseness. The sound is rich and eminently appealing, and is similar in sound to that of avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey's album, Ballads (Tzadik, 2002). But Nix's record has, also, his trademark musical question marks and sideways explorations—though this time in the solo context. The album is available as a download album from eMusic.

Nix explains that the music arose from sketches he made during his time with Coleman and Prime Time— further works from Nix's notebooks. "The tunes on Low Barometer are derived from exercises I did when I was with Ornette Coleman," says Nix. "They were practical applications of harmolodics. I was trying to get used to the whole process of harmolodics. Ornette gave us all these notebooks. We had to write out ideas in the notebooks. These things I have had for years."

The label, Tompkins Square, specializes in (but is by no means restricted to) releases of acoustic guitar recordings, and the title track from Low Barometer is also on a highly-rated (by All Music Guide) acoustic guitar anthology entitled Imaginational Anthems Vol 1—3" (Tompkins Square, 2007).

Another track is entitled "Les Is More." Nix explains that it is about a poet friend named Lester Afflick. "He was a poet, a good up-and-coming young poet. He died about ten years ago. He was a man about town. He died on New Year's Eve, more like New Year's Day. When he got home, he found out his brother—he had a half brother who lived in England—had died. So he died [too]—had a heart attack. He was 42, 43."

Bern Nix"Objects of Correlation" is a very energetic tune, seeming to reflect the vibrancy of New York with an "up from the streets" feel. Nix says of the title, "I was playing with an emotional idea, trying to find a way of musicalizing an emotional idea." This may be yet another influence from Nix's time with Coleman: in an interview in 2007, Coleman said he "prefer[red] to think of sound as a form of invisible emotion."

A highlight is the tune "Love's Enigma," which twists everywhere, with its addictive occasional vibrato notes.

"You meld the music together," he says. Nix contrasts two sides of music—writing and practicing. He says, "Can you do both? Some can. A lot of people get swamped. I like practicing. The physical sensation of playing an instrument—there's something enjoyable about the agony of trying to make the [instrument] make a noise."

He adds, "I want to keep on playing. I had a surgery a couple of years ago. I don't feel the same since the surgery. I'd just like to keep on playing. The scene is different now. Since I was a kid, I've only ever been obsessed with playing music."

Perhaps in contrast to his musical style, Nix's actual physical playing and setup of the guitar is quite traditional. In addition to steering clear of the use of pedals and effects, "I've always used a pick. Fingering would be like starting over." Nix was also impressed with '50s guitarist Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
1925 - 2005
organ, Hammond B3
, who, Nix says, was a great technician. Smith is well known for his early '50s recordings with Stan Getz, for example: "He used a pick, but he was amazing. You try to make [your] statement in the time available."

He plays in concert pitch with a standard tuning. So far as amp settings are concerned, Nix favors the "traditional" jazz sound: "I like to get a round sound, a dark sound, like the so-called 'jazz guitar sound.' Like mid-range, a fat mid-range sound. Kind of dark. I usually have the toggle on the lower pickup, the one next to the bridge. You get to hear the darker sound with that—kind of a dark sound."


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