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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

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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.

"The thing that is interesting is that, at this rehearsal we had yesterday, the guy who was putting the rehearsal together was playing this video about Miles, his acoustic music. The trio, with that rhythm section—I think it was Ron Carter and Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock—some of the stuff they did rhythmically, if you listen to the Plugged Nickel recordings, they're not playing like straight 4/4 time or straight any kind of time. The time is very free, and[yet] everybody knows where everybody is. And I've heard some people say at that point that, even though Miles is [not] Ornette, it was obvious that that rhythm section had been listening to Ornette's rhythm section. [They're] not playing it straight—it's straight, but it goes in and out, so it's kind of like what Ornette was doing with his rhythm section."

Nix draws attention to how the concept of rhythm has changed over time: "It's happened over the years [that] the whole concept of what a rhythm section does is becoming more open and more flexible as the music changes. I mean, if you listen to what a rhythm section was doing in the '20s, or the '40s, or the '50s, the whole concept [has] got more open. [That is], it was until, I guess, now with a lot of younger players. I was talking to these younger bass players, more traditional younger players, and some people were saying that people like Scott LaFaro and what they were doing—they don't want to do that. They want to go back to a more traditional way of playing the bass, having more clearly defined roles for the bass, but... I don't really agree with that.

"The rhythm section has evolved with the music: somebody like Sunny Murray—he plays in free time. Sunny Murray did an interview with a magazine and he was talking about these wild stories—how he was with Miles one night and Miles was giving [him] a hard time because he said Tony Williams was having [too much of] an impact on how he was playing.

"The whole concept of time is getting freer and freer. Like I said, Jerome Cooper said, 'In order to play free time, you have to play traditional time as well.' You can't do one without doing the other. You can play straight-up time, traditional swing time, but you can open it up and go to a different place—but everyone knows how to come back to that other thing, what they call so-called "good time." But we [free jazz musicians] start opening [it] up: we start exploring. There are some guys, they only like traditional straight ahead time—but other people need to be flexible. They want to explore more."

Jazz could be said to be one of the best areas for musical exploration. "Yeah, yeah," agrees Nix.

Nix explains the use of harmolodics when he plays a standard, rather than one of his own tunes: "[You] just start off playing the tune as is. With what you know about all these different chords and scales, you can superimpose things on top of them—different substitute chords and things... I apply some of Ornette's ideas, like some of the stuff he did with chords such as—he showed me about minor seventh chords, some stuff about playing with the minor seventh chord. You can expand the harmony, open it up. That was one thing he showed me. [There are] all kinds of possibilities, trying to find another way to play that stuff (the traditional harmonic structures) and expand on it. It was something like a transposition thing that he would do.

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