Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

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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."

"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, 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."

The Changing Music-Making Environment

Nix notes major changes about the general state of music and playing in public now as compared to in the '70s, even the '80s. The move from analog to digital recording, the decline in the amount of "organic," human-performed music produced, and the advent of the internet and its impact on the record business, are the major differences. There are also fewer live jazz performance opportunities, and the environment for jazz artists has changed in New York since the '70s. He introduces the theme when discussing the beginning of his first trio and one of his first bass players, avant-garde bassist William Parker: "You see, the thing is, I used to play with William quite a bit. Everybody was playing with everybody a lot. In New York then, there was a lot more playing. We'd all play with each-other a couple of times a week. If it wasn't a gig it was a rehearsal. That doesn't happen so much now."

He elaborates: "We [all] lived in Manhattan. There were more places to play. Plus you're all younger—all of the above! It was a different time and the city was different, too." Living expenses are a major factor. "It got to be too expensive. The rent was low, [but now the city's] too upscale, bourgeois. The whole thing is, when you first get to New York, you get excited, but it gets to be a struggle. Like this trumpet player I know. Between gigs he's doing all these different [jobs]. You get worn out—you [can't play]. The cost of living is so much higher—you've got to live in Brooklyn someplace. Everyone used to live in Manhattan."

It is even harder for avant-garde musicians: "Especially if you're playing the kind of music I play—you're not playing mainstream jazz. It's hard to get gigs that pay well unless you've got a name. That's the downside. It's kind of frustrating.

"It's all vulcanized now. It used to be in Manhattan. You used to see the same people three or four times a week, whereas now you see someone once a year. When I came to New York in 1975, the subway was like 75-80 cents. Everybody either lived in the East Village or on the Upper West Side. You didn't have to worry about any noise rules. You could play from 11-pm to 4-am. But now it's all gentrified, so clean, so sterile, no room for creativity. The city went bankrupt and the urban gentry took over... the bourgeoisie.


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