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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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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:


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