Guitarist Bern Nix has participated in many fine groups over the course of his career, most notably saxophonist Ornette Coleman's historic Prime Time, where Nix became one of the foremost interpreters of Coleman's groundbreaking harmolodic approach. These days Nix has created a quartet that's exploding onto the jazz scene in a big way. After a fiery set at the 18th Vision Festival, musician-blogger John Pietaro declared, "The Bern Nix Quartet is everywhere and exactly-where, and the overall effect is dizzying in the best possible way. This is the next obvious step in the harmolodic world."
The quartet has its seeds in a trio Nix formed with bassist Francois Grillot and drummer Jackson Krall; Nix has always been fond of the trio format, including a 1980s group featuring the great bassist William Parker. Nix's strong connection with Grillot continued when the trio reconfigured, adding in multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle, another member of the harmolodic universe via his studies with Coleman, and rounded off by the dynamic drummer Reggie Sylvester. The foursome put in literally hundreds of hours in Grillot's kitchen, a renowned musical laboratory in Hell's Kitchen, New York. The group has been performing live the past year, including gigs at Iridium and the Vision Festival, but for anyone not lucky enough to attend these shows, Negative Capability is hot off the press.
The term "negative capability" comes from poet John Keats; in the liner notes Nix explains that it's "awareness and acceptance of the ... nuances of any experience in a manner that allows for comprehension, appreciation, and analysis without need for rush to judgement." Which fits in perfectly with harmolodics, a portal for transcendence that Nix has described as "an open-ended exploration of the meaning of melody, rhythm, and harmony." The rich theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of this music can provide endless treasures, but at the end of the day these seven original songs by Nix are full of beauty and immensely pleasurable.
The album leaps right in with "Desert Storm," an angular, appealing melody where the group's strengths are immediately apparent. First is Nix himself: his tone is incredibly pure and chiming, coupled with a dexterity that's astounding. Lavelle is in top form, his trumpet bright and crisp, his solo superbly articulated. There's a powerful drive and swing to this music as well, provided by the smoking-hot rhythm section of Grillot and Sylvester. It's a deliciously tuneful piece, with mutual improvisation centering around Nix's blazing-white sun. "Furniture Music" features a stunning opening with Grillot playing arco above Nix's drone and Sylvester's elegant cymbal dancing; it's a mesmerizing interlude that's both ambient and raw. Lavelle joins in after a few minutes, playing with bracing economy and introducing the song's pleasing melody, which gives way to a series of compelling solos by Nix, Lavelle, and Grillot. The catchy melody of "Fire Within" does a playful call-and-response with snippets of joyful chaos. Lavelle's solo is full of passion, his trumpet on a mission of soaring searching. As throughout, his lines are supported and incited by Nix, a master of comping who adds delectable harmolodic splashes. In the midst of the tune's rich complexity it still feels wonderfully open, due in large part to the rhythm section, which plays with an airy urgency that's just glorious. "Les Is More" is not, as one might expect, a tribute to guitar legend Les Paul, but rather a friend of Nix's who died in his early forties. It's an evocative song about impermanence and loss, full of meditative flavor that's beautifully tender. The solos on this piece are just outstanding: Nix is pensive and haunted, supported by poignant arco work by Grillot, and Lavelle's alto clarinet offers a quiet statement of lovingly shaped phrases, a melodic thoughtfulness that digs deep into the dusky contours of the instrument.
"Naomi" is a bossa-harmolodic confection that's an absolute delight. Lavelle is renowned for his free jazz blowouts, but once again he reveals a wondrous way with the economical. Here he channels his inner Stan Getz, keeping close to the melodic and gently escalating it into something fresh. There's also a nice solo by Nix, acknowledging bossa guitarists such as Charlie Byrd while simultaneously taking the bones of the melody for a slightly dissonant spin. Sylvester shines as well, laying down a bossa-infused rhythm that allows the song to shapeshift along familiar and unfamiliar lines. "Don't Try So Hard" has a wry, ironic melody softened by Nix's luminous fields of sound, vibrant layers of chiming guitar that quietly implode. The generous solo space allows Nix and Lavelle to construct multi-leveled architectures, and Sylvester again provides a simmering locomotive energy; he's one of those drummers who sounds like he has more than four limbs, due in part to his unique technique of using several drumsticks in a bundle.
The set wraps up with "Under the Volcano," a mega-funky tune that hearkens back to Nix's R&B roots in Toledo, Ohio. There's another remarkable solo from Nix as he unravels the melody into a lucid, agile lacework. Lavelle's alto clarinet solo is a wonder, a writhing explosion of shredding sound, and Grillot has a fine solo as well, this time pizzicato; the mighty strength of his sound combined with his superlative technique makes it clear why he's been a mainstay of the New York free scene for decades. The song eventually finds its way back to the melody, which once again impresses with its funky freshness.Altogether Negative Capability weaves a splendid tapestry, a consistently appealing blend of styles and ideas and melodies, with delicious surprises around every corner. Equally stunning is the group's harmonious integration: it's not surprising that a master like Nix has attracted excellent players, but it's a joy to hear how unified the quartet has become. The world needs to hear more of this group: may the musical universe and the harmolodic gods align in their favor.
Personnel: Bern Nix: guitar; Matt Lavelle: trumpet, alto clarinet; François Grillot: contrabass; Reggie Sylvester: drums.