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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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"I take the traditional harmonies and traditional notions, and try to put the harmolodic spin on that. A lot of what I play is really based on very traditional stuff, but I try to approach it from a harmolodic vantage point. It's like, if you're a writer and you're writing with the alphabet, you can use the alphabet a lot of different ways. It's all common property. It depends on how you look at it. That's basically how I see it—you have the common grammar and the vocabulary. You just try to use it in a different way."

Coleman is reported to have said of Nix that he "has the clearest tone of a guitarist for playing harmolodics." Nix says, "I don't think I've got a particularly clear tone. But sometimes you don't notice something you do. You make peace with your limitations."

The albums that Prime Time recorded are now a legendary part of the jazz catalogue.

Nix's Guitar Influences

Nix grew up in Toledo, Ohio in the '50s and '60s with the standard jazz guitar tradition. The desire to play jazz was paramount. "It was always in my head that I was thinking, 'I'm going to be a jazz player,'" he says.

R&B was big in Toledo at the time, along with the rock sound. "Different bands I was in wanted me to get a wah wah pedal. They'd say, 'Play wah wah, Bern.' I had a Vox for two months, but... I like Coryell [and] McLaughlin, [and] I wanted to be a 'real jazz guitarist,' whatever that is. I admire [their] stuff—it's part of the vocabulary—[but] when I was 14 or 15, I thought of the more traditional jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, etc, that 'this is real jazz guitar.'

Here is a great clip of Kessel playing "Gypsy In My Soul" in 1962—the introduction has a sliding chordal sound similar to Nix's.



"I always liked the sound of the guitar as it is. My parents wanted to give me an electric, but I wanted to keep the acoustic. I can admire the boxes, [the use of effects] pedals, but I always have a certain sound in my mind, or an idea of the sound that I want." He says he liked Hendrix, but jazz was the thing for him.

"But," he continues, "there were just R&B bands in Ohio when I was growing up! Toledo was just R&B in the '60s. You had to get out of there if you wanted to play jazz. Everyone was playing R&B. If you were trying to play jazz, you were kind of weird in the 50s and the '60s. Some people played just the blues, but nobody wanted to play jazz. They thought you were from another planet if you wanted to play jazz."

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the gap between R&B and jazz at the time, there is a '70s release of Jimi Hendrix studio tracks where Hendrix himself can be heard saying in an incredulous voice, "Jazz?" when some modern jazz is heard playing briefly over the studio speakers. Hendrix had, of course, developed on the R&B "Chitlin Circuit" in the '60s.

However, in addition to straight-ahead jazz, Nix was also drawn to the avant-garde. "I also had a thing I always wanted to do," he says. "Part of me is contradictory. Part of me is jazz, another part of me wanted to play avant-garde.

In any event, at first Nix listened to Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Chuck Wayne, and George Shearing. "A lot of my guitar teachers were from the '40s and the '50s, so they were into mainstream jazz guitar—'real jazz guitar.' I liked Howard Roberts, a session guitarist who recorded a lot of elevator music—he played the tempo of horn players. Not many can do that—just Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino."

Chuck Wayne plays "Bernie's Tune" with the Mike Morreale Quartet—he is almost like a saxophonist, exhibiting chromatic aspects and some of the flavor of early Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: Bernie's Tune

For a guitarist to be able to play a guitar at the speed of a Charlie Parker lick is certainly appealing, but it is hard to do—Nix comments, "One school of thought is that you can try to play like the horn players. Another school of thought is that a guitar is a guitar, a sax is a sax. George Benson was talking about it a few years ago, [suggesting] using a different way of tuning [to do it]. A horn player has a better grasp of phrasing because they have to breathe. Hence they used to say guitar players don't know how to phrase, as well as that they don't know how to read!"

Nix points out the important factor of the overlapping of influence of earlier guitarists on each other: "A lot of early rock players in the '50s and early '60s were into real players. For example, (Elvis' guitarist) Scotty Moore was into Barney Kessel, who was into Charlie Christian. Chuck Berry was into Charlie Christian. But the '60s was more diverse. It was [just] either blues or jazz in the old days."

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