Bern Nix, guitar; Fred Hopkins, acoustic bass; Newman Baker, drums
“Bern Nix has the clearest tone for playing harmolodic music that relates to the guitar as a concert instrument,” says Ornette Coleman in whose Prime Time Band Nix performed from 1975 to 1987.
With Coleman's harmolodic theory, jazz took a new direction—in which harmony, rhythm, and melody assumed equal roles, as did soloists. Ever since Coleman disbanded the original Prime Time Band in 1987, harmolodics has remained an essential element in Nix's growth and personal expression as a jazz guitarist, as evidenced here.
The linear phrasing and orchestral effects of a jazz tradition founded by guitarists Charlie Christian, Grant Green, and Wes Montgomery are apparent in Nix's techniques, as well as his clean-toned phrasing and bluesy melodies. Nix harks back to his mentors, but with his witty articulation and rhythmical surprises, he conveys a modernist sensibility. “I paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” says Nix about his combination of harmolodic and traditional methods.
In much of Nix's music, he doesn't think in terms of bar lines and key signatures. With an open-ended approach to structure, his trio can take different aspects of melody and develop them as motives. “I like to leave it open to the personalities of the players,” he says. “The tunes can be freely interpreted in a democratic way without yielding to chaos. There's not the hierarchy found in standard jazz or classical music. I'll harmonize the melodic interval, but won't necessarily use the 'correct' chord,” Nix says. His use of quartal harmonies (voicing in fourths) makes his sound ambiguous. “I might put a third in the bass, use a voicing in fourths or a cluster on guitar,” said Nix.
With a strong respect for the guitar jazz tradition, Nix reinterprets melodies and harmonies through his technical innovations without adopting any use of electronic devices: “A lot of guitarists today use a lot of gadgets. I want to create a new sound on the guitar without them.”
“The mystery of improvisation has always intrigued me,” he says. With his trio, that mystery lies in the spontaneous interplay, in the call-and-response patterns, and in the open ways in which what comes next delicately speaks to tradition, yet feels modern.