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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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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.

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