Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

Bern Nix, 1947-2017

nix-lowWith my mind on guitarists, it seems fitting to reflect for a few minutes on Bern Nix, who passed away recently at the age of 69. I’m no Nix expert; I’m not even that well versed in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time years. But I appreciate the music and what Nix brought to it.

Former New York Times reporter Nate Chinen, now working at WGBO-FM, produced a fantastic obit, as usual, with the added detail that Nix was rehearsing regularly with Denardo Coleman’s band for an Ornette Coleman Festival. That festival is happening next month.

I like Chinen’s description of Nix playing a “subtle yet central” role in Prime Time, alongside the flashier Charles Ellerbee. And I like his choice of this live clip from 1987. During moments when Nix is on camera, such as the few seconds after 7:07, you can correlate his hand motions to what he’s playing. When I did that, I discovered he was creating ongoing threads of melody and calm riffs — a trail that I wouldn’t have noticed amid the whole band, but which became vital once I was aware of it. Nix fleshes out mood and color, doing his own thing but in a way that adds depth to the overall group sound.

 
Chinen also calls out Nix’s solo acoustic album Low Barometer (Tompkins Square, 2006), noting that the results “warrant comparison with analogous recordings by Derek Bailey, John Fahey and Marc Ribot.” Derek Bailey is a particularly interesting inclusion there, because Nix’s acoustic guitar shares that same curt sound, almost as if he’s taking advantage of the instrument’s lack of sustain.

But Chinen is talking about a mixture of Bailey with more melodic players. On Low Barometer, Nix traces recognizable and even pleasant routes — melodies, projected onto a tilted harmelodic plane. I’m actually reminded of Joe Pass’ self-titled solo album. Tracks like “Generic Ballad” and “Love’s Enigma” drift by, patiently, like a slow river in summer, and I realize that with this music, Nix is delivering his own fitting elegy.