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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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And T-Bone Walker: Nix says he had some of Walker's records. "I had old B&W (the Black And White label) 78s around the house of T-Bone. Seminal people. The traditions overlapped. There is a record of T-Bone and Charlie Christian doing a duet as kids."

"Cross-generational influence" applies to all jazz musicians, even to some names that may be surprising. Nix says, "Hanging out with Ornette Coleman, I would see him play a carbon copy of Charlie Parker, all the licks, but when he was being 'an artist,' he wouldn't play that. Jackson Krall told me once that Cecil Taylor could play like Bud Powell. [There was also] a book written by a guitarist who said that Monk could play like Art Tatum, but he wanted to play his angular style. Once Monk was listening to a playback and he said, 'It sounds like James P Johnson!'"

Nix spoke more about his "special" guitar influences, names not so "run of the mill" (if one could ever call Christian, Montgomery, etc. "run of the mill"). Of Pat Martino's excellent piece, "The Great Stream," he says "Yeah, I've heard that. He's amazing, he's amazing. The first I ever heard of him he was playing with (altoist) John Handy. He took Jerry Hahn's place in John Handy's band, in the 1960s. Then I started investigating some of his other recordings. I went to one of his clinics at the Guitar Centre on 14th Street about five years ago. He was explaining his approach to the fingerboard. It's all like geometry or something—It's all very geometric. He picks up the guitar like an engineer, you know? So it's amazing, but I could never think about the guitar that way."

As with the Chuck Wayne clip above, this clip of Martino playing "The Great Stream" live is extremely instructive. It is very well filmed, with plenty of attention to the guitarist's approach to the fretboard.

But he says "I've never thought of myself as being a technician—some people do both—be musicians and technicians. I practice the basic scales. I do them every day. [It gives you] more dexterity... if I don't do it every so often then my fingers get—somebody told me once, [it's good] if you can play all the places on the neck, but everybody's different. I have the fingerboard in my mind and in my ear." Some non-musicians may see playing scales as a childhood task, devoid of musicality, but Nix knows that a musician does not see it like that. "You can see a scale is like a melody, a parent or a primary melody, a root melody," he says.

There is a tune of Nix's, entitled "To Paris" (see below), where he sounds, in the riff figure at the beginning, a little like '40s bebop guitarist Tiny Grimes. Nix says, "A lot of people say that. I've had people tell me I sound like all sorts of people. I've had people tell me I sound like Alan Holdsworth, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell. Everybody hears in different ways, but I was surprised that somebody said that. I mean, Tiny Grimes is a great player. There's nothing wrong... I just can't see the similarity! Sometimes you don't have any objectivity about what it is you're doing. It's hard to be totally objective about your own work.

"It's funny, I was listening to the radio earlier this evening. They were doing [a program on] John Cage. There's a John Cage festival coming up. At a certain point you have to get beyond wondering about whether what you are doing is good or bad—not getting hung up about it."

Yet, later in "To Paris," you have the feeling of a subtle Charlie Christian being evoked.

Broader Jazz Influences

In addition to guitarists, Nix grew up listening to a lot of Duke Ellington. Ellington was a composer. By way of example, his piece "Rocking In Rhythm" (1930), which includes a figure frequently employed by later bop pianists such as Bud Powell, is through-composed, written in sections. "I hadn't thought about that. I liked them [Ellington's records] when I was a kid. I used to listen to them all the time—Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Blanton. It's just great music, it sounds great. It feels great." A possible connection is that Nix's pieces are also frequently comprised of small neat sections through-composed in a single stream, with the main figure returning when appropriate. He says, "I'm thinking about theme and variations, the musical equivalent of trying to develop a topic. Some writer once said, 'If you have one true sentence, you can just keep going'—I think it was Hemingway."


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