Of course I was interested in checking out a live performance by Dan Nimmer. In fact, I had been waiting for just such a date. Here is a young man from the Great Midwest who had gone to New York City and found a way to audition for Wynton Marsalis’ open piano chair. And get the gig! I admired his ability as Wynton’s accompanist, but I wanted to hear him on his own. The opportunity arose on a cold January night in Milwaukee, when Dan Nimmer graciously agreed to close the Eastside Jazzfest, a day-long teaching seminar for the youth of his hometown.
Nimmer chose a balance of originals and standards for this set as group leader. The trio began with his own “Lu’s Bounce,” a 12-minute uptempo workout that showed the pianist unafraid to take chances. As the number’s head led into improvisation, Nimmer immediately dove for deep water. A confident player, he was apparently untroubled about whether he could completely pull off each idea. He refused to take the safe path during this entire set, starting with measure one. That’s jazz!
This strong beginning was followed by “Do You Mind?,” another fast original. A fine composer himself, Nimmer is obviously very aware of the vast music catalog that precedes his era. Brief quotes of various melodies from jazz’s past could be heard on these two openers, and at times the pianist could have been channeling Oscar Peterson or even Art Tatum.
With almost 20 minutes of virtuosity, the trio had immediately offered the audience what it came to hear. In fact, Nimmer sounded almost embarrassed as he said that for their third number, the group would now tone down the fireworks and play a ballad. Tad Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” was given a beautiful interpretation, during which the pianist lovingly caressed the keys. An atmospheric performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” followed, after which the pianist returned to his own book with “Modern Day Blues.”
Nimmer’s full-hand chord work was impressive, as were his articulate single-line runs. The emphasis on melody during the set is noteworthy, as Nimmer never let his considerable chops dominate a piece for the sake of show. Here is a pianist who respects the song, a fact which became increasingly clear when hearing which non-original selections Nimmer chose to play.
This night was very much of a family affair. Nimmer was playing for an intimate hometown audience of about 80. His parents were in the second row, and former teachers and classmates could be seen throughout the hall. The set was scheduled for an hour, and as the final selections began, Nimmer introduced an original written for his nephew Ray. This must be one active kid, because “Ray” never stopped bouncing and featured a lot of staccato runs. Nimmer finally seemed to be having fun, or at least relaxing a bit. Sitting at a black Steinway grand in suit and tie, his attitude was sometimes hard to gauge. He traded exuberant fours on this last trio piece with drummer Brian Ritter and bassist Jake Vinsel, both up from Chicago for this one-off gig.
After a strong and deserved ovation, Nimmer dedicated a solo piece to his parents, Ellington’s “Reflections in D.” As before, his touch was so controlled that his fingers seemed to flutter above the keys more than actually play them. The Duke would have been pleased by the respect Dan Nimmer showed, both for the composer’s music and for the pianist’s own mother and father.
Bass and drums kicked back in for the break tune, during which the pianist acknowledged his band and the audience, and then bid us good night.