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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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The harmony doesn't dictate the direction, the melody does.
New York-based free jazz guitarist Bern Nix is one of the few people who are well-versed in Ornette Coleman's "harmolodics" style. He played with Coleman from 1975-1987, and now leads the Bern Nix Trio in New York City. In his compositions and his intriguing covers of standards, he is always looking in the corners of the music for something new.

Described recently by a viewer on YouTube as being "the Billy Bang of the guitar," Nix's sound is both spare and full, melding Wes Montgomery (for example, as on Montgomery's stops and starts in "Four On Six") and references to guitarists from Tiny Grimes and Barney Kessel to Derek Bailey. His free explorations are couched in a smooth Jimmy Raney-style accent and flow, with his compositions and improvisations based largely on Coleman's harmolodics.

Joining Ornette Coleman

Before joining Coleman, Nix was a student at Berklee School of Music. "At Berklee, they used to give the guitar players hell," he says. "They'd say, 'You can't read.'" One of his teachers, who taught the guitar ensemble class and his arranging class, said: "The only thing to do is to do it every day." Nix still practices reading sheet music daily—he buys classical music and big band music. With classical scores, he will often read off the first violin part. It was also a technique practiced by one of Nix's main influences, guitarist Jimmy Raney.

After graduating from Berklee in 1975, Nix heard that Coleman was looking for a guitarist, so he found Coleman's phone number and rang him up. Nix went to New York and auditioned with Coleman in his loft apartment in Manhattan. Coleman's guitarist at the time was James Blood Ulmer. Nix says, "I first saw Blood in 1975, when he came up to Boston when I was at Berklee. He was playing with Larry Young on organ (and) it was a free concert. He had also played with Joe Henderson on one or two LPs."

Then, in Coleman's apartment, Nix saw Ulmer walk into the room. "I saw him and I said to myself, 'Oh, that's the guy who was playing at Berklee with Larry Young.'" Nix adds, "I was looking for a gig—I didn't want to go back to Ohio." He found his gig, with Coleman's Prime Time electric band, where he played from that year until 1987.

Harmolodics

To play with Coleman, it was necessary for Nix to become accustomed to Coleman's musical approach, the famous style that Coleman named "harmolodics." What is harmolodics? Nix began to answer this question by saying, "Well, that's the big question!" Nix explains that it is melody that leads the way in harmolodics. Indeed, a few moments on a guitar will show that improvising a free (and solo) melody is the easiest way to change key—you don't do it by trying to improvise a series of chord changes.

"It's a different approach to playing," Nix says. He listened to Ulmer to see what was going on with harmolodics and Coleman's sound. "I needed to listen to him play. [Harmolodics] is like [playing] a standard jazz guitar, but only more contemporary—it's a fresh approach to playing jazz guitar. [It's] just a way of looking at music—It's not a system. It's a way of... [handling] the difficulty of dealing with melody, rhythm and harmony... [by way of utilizing] melodic variables... [It's] exploratory. [You find] direction with the melody. The harmony doesn't dictate the direction, the melody does."

He adds, "I see it like counterpoint—contrapuntal lines—so I guess that's one way of looking at it. Somebody once told me they thought harmolodics was counterpoint carried to extremes. I was doing a gig once in Canada with this band. We were playing music that was kind of similar to what we were playing with Ornette. We were doing a gig one night at the club and this guy came up—I think he was with the local university or something—and he said that what we were doing sounded like counterpoint taken to its extremes.

"I [once] said to Ornette that it seemed like counterpoint. I was working with him, rehearsing with him, and we were getting down to a couple of different lines... and I said to him, 'You know, to me this sounds like counterpoint.' He said, 'Well, it's not exactly counterpoint, it's something else.' You know what I mean? The way Ornette uses language, he likes to put his own spin on everything. But to me, it's contrapuntal. I talk to other people and they say the same thing.

"I always thought harmolodics was an open-ended exploration of the meaning of melody, rhythm and harmony; that's the way I see it. [You're asking] what is melody, what is rhythm—what it is. It's more like that, than a big system, you know—it's ways of dealing with it. [You] figure out the different ways of doing [it]."

Prime Time, a twin electric guitar band plus Coleman and the rhythm section, released a number of albums, and Nix played on six, beginning with Dancing In Your Head (A&M, 1975) and ending with Virgin Beauty (CBS, 1988). The albums in between were Body Meta (Artist House, 1976), Of Human Feelings (Antilles, 1979), In All Languages (Caravan Of Dreams, 1987) and Live At Jazzbuehne Berlin (Repertoire, 1988).

He describes the journey on the albums: "We were basically working on the same concept with all the albums. Essentially it was an evolving thing, really—the same concept, the whole idea of compositional improvisation and just trying to develop it. If you get a band, you try and develop it, to try to make it better. It was basically the same kind of idea—composing, orchestrating as you play."

Nix goes further: "You shouldn't have to think in terms of the traditional role on your instrument. The guitarist [can be] thinking like a drummer, a bassist. You can change at any given minute. It's like an organic kind of music-making. It's constantly changing—the whole idea is to keep it changing, trying to avoid making it sound too formulaic or predictable." He describes the result: The music develops "in an open-ended way."

Of the bouncing and distinctive title track of Prime Time's first album, Dancing In Your Head, Nix says, "That tune was originally from 'Skies in America.' You see, the thing about Ornette is that he keeps on changing the titles to different things. 'Cause when I first joined the band, I would always ask him, 'What do you call this tune?' It used to annoy him because I'd want to know the title—it's not just what you play that changes; the titles change too." The album, Skies In America (CBS, 1972), is an orchestral album on which Coleman formally first used the term "harmolodics."

Nix went with Prime Time to Europe on several occasions: "In Germany they like interesting bands—we toured a lot in Germany. I remember Berlin and Munich. We played a lot in France, Italy and England, and Belgium. We went to Japan in about 1985."

Nix's guitar colleague in the band was Charlie Ellerbie. Ellerbie's role differed from that of Nix, who played (and plays) a straight electric sound without effects. Nix says of Ellerbie, "Charlie Ellerbie was more of a rock player. He used a lot of things rock guitarists use, like the effects and the pedals. He was listening more to rock than he was to jazz. One thing he told me once—he said that the only jazz he's ever been digging was McCoy Tyner... because the music McCoy Tyner played reminded him of acid rock! That was his take. He was into Hendrix... I last saw him two years ago. He's like the rest of us, trying to get gigs. You're always trying to look for a gig."

One interesting gig Prime Time played was on Saturday Night Live in the late '70s, when Milton Berle was the host. "I think we played this tune called 'Times Square.' We recorded that record around the time we were on Saturday Night Live. Milton Berle wanted more time, so we could only do one tune." Nix relates the experience of appearing on television: "You went out and did the song, and before you knew it, it was over."

"Dancing In Your Head" may seem to some people reminiscent of African music. Nix says, "Yeah, probably North African because Ornette has spent a lot of time [there]. Some of the rhythms, I listened to some of that music in North Africa [when] Ornette went there. Sometimes the way the drummers play, something about [Prime Time] reminds me of the playing in Joujouka, Morocco. I hear that similarity. Ornette spent some time in North Africa hanging out with these guys and playing the music." (Coleman went to Morocco in 1973 with authors Robert Palmer and William Burroughs).

"It's almost like what we were doing is kind of like what they do. [There are] similarities between how they played and how Prime Time played. It's like everyone is playing a separate melody or a unison but everyone's got... everyone's playing, like, an independent lead."

This description—everyone playing an independent lead—may be getting close to what harmolodics is: "Yeah, well, I'm sure Ornette was influenced by all that, 'cause I know when he went there, he went with Robert Palmer, the writer... and then there are the pictures of Ornette and Robert Palmer encountering the musicians with people like William Burroughs [Coleman wrote the soundtrack for the film adaptation of Burrough's book, Naked Lunch]. Ornette made videos with him and Robert Palmer with the North African musicians. He spent a couple of months up there. I don't know what he did but he was there for a while. So I'm sure that [was an] influence."

Here is a clip of Prime Time from 1986:



In music, in addition to melody and harmony, there is, of course, rhythm. Nix speaks of the three elements, phrasing them in the order "melody, rhythm and harmony," implying, even in his speech, that in harmolodics, melody is the first item of interest, then time. Harmony is, by default, last, or at least follows automatically from the melody.

Of rhythm in his playing, Nix says that, while bar lines are not necessarily adhered to, everything works together: "It makes sense—everything is together. There's a logic to it. That's how I see it—I like to think it makes sense and is viable. It's an experiment in melody and rhythm."

There is still a rooting in conventional time somewhere: "[Percussionist] Jerome Cooper said, 'In order to play free time, you have to know how to play normal time.' He had played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cecil Taylor, so he had seen both sides. Also, when he first came to New York, he played in the house band at the Apollo.

"Robert Palmer wrote the liner notes on one of Ornette's records on Columbia, and he was trying to explain Ornette's music. He was saying how Ornette's music was 'based on biological rhythms,' as he put it. I always thought that made sense. [It's] a fairly good description of his sound—organic rhythms instead of thinking about bar lines.
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