Ayman Fanous, an innovative Richmond musician who combines flamenco and free elements in his style, first met fellow guitarist Bern Nix at a New York show after hearing his widely praised solo album "Alarms and Excursions." The two discovered they shared both a birthday and an adventurous, disciplined approach to music. The duo first played in public at Richmond's Artspace in 1995, and have played many times since at venues such as New York's famous Knitting Factory. The duo returns to Richmond on Sunday, Nov. 5, for a show at Virginia Commonwealth University's Grace Street Theatre. The show will be a rare opportunity for a unique, improvised musical experience. "Part of the adventure of it all," says Nix, "is that we will all be exploring together." Nix is well aware of the challenges of being a creative musician in a postmodern world. "In the '70s, when I arrived in New York there was more room for adventurous stuff, everything was up for grabs," he remembers. "To jazz something up was to give it an irreverent take. Jazz was rebellious. Today, the cultural trend is to look backwards, to try to re-create a 'Golden Era' as if that was what jazz was all about." From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, Nix played with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band. His career since has been conditioned by those years with one of the most innovative musicians of the last half-century. Coleman burst onto the scene in the late '50s, at a time when the art of jazz improvisation was highly stylized, built around well-established chord changes and swinging 4/4 time signatures. Coleman abandoned the accepted structures altogether, playing in a wildly individual style on a plastic alto saxophone. Some musicians said he was playing "wrong," and called him a charlatan. Others were equally sure he was a genius. Nix was one of a group of young musicians who joined Coleman in the funky electric Prime Time band. By this time, Coleman's unique approach had been semiformalized into a blend of theory and charisma called "Harmolodics." "We used to dream about how Harmolodics would be a major current in the music, like swing or bebop," Nix recalls. "But it's still a tributary." Coleman's music was more easily appreciated than his inspirational but baffling explanations of his approach. "I was relieved when I learned I wasn't the only one who didn't always understand what he was talking about." Nix remembers. "There's only one person who really knows what Harmolodics means, and that's Ornette. "What I learned was that you didn't have to worry about rules or precedents," he adds. "But that doesn't mean that you don't need to understand the basics the music and your instrument." Over the years, Fanous has found his long-running association with Nix to be both personally rewarding and an "education in the language of an entire musical community." Fanous sees the Harmolodic approach as both challenging and liberating. "This kind of music strips down the music to the bare essentials," he says. "You don't have the supporting structures, just your emotions and your mind. Playing with Bern has resulted in some of the most satisfying musical experiences of my life." Nix sees the distinction between traditional "inside" and modernistic "outside" jazz as being increasingly irrelevant. "The avant-garde is historical," he says, "it's past. What we'll be playing is our take on the future."
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