Dan Nimmer, jazz pianist, comes home to play
Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, bandleader, composer and one of the greatest musicians of the day, leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the greatest jazz band of the day. You can count on Marsalis to give pianist Dan Nimmer, Milwaukee’s own, a special hometown moment when the JLCO plays at the Marcus Center Tuesday evening.
Nimmer studied piano first with Barbara Bunge and then with jazz pianits Mark Davis at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He started playing gigs as a teenager. As a music student at Northern Illinois University, Nimmer quickly found himself a go-to pianist on the Chicago jazz scene. Success there gave him the courage to quit school after his sophomore year and try his luck in New York. A year later, he joined the best band in the world.
“Wynton comes out of that Art Blakey school,” Nimmer said, from his tour hotel in Minneapolis. “He nurtures young talent when he sees it. Wynton’s a great mentor and a good guy to work for. He’s very serious about music.”
Nimmer, 29, feels at home with Marsalis’ approach to jazz, which is to extend art and to honor jazz tradition at the same time. You know it when you hear it, but the philosophy is a little hard to explain.
“We might play something from the 1930s and then play something very modern,” Nimmer said. “We want the ’30s piece to sound authentic, but not like something out of a history book. We want to draw from the past, put our own stamp on it and still maintain the style.”
The JLCO plays historic arrangements; new music, often by Marsalis and band members; and new arrangements of old tunes. Many of its arrangements are enormously complex and technically daunting. Virtuosity figures prominently in the Marsalis aesthetic. If you’re anything less than a monster player, don’t bother to apply. They show off their virtuosity in remarkably tight ensemble playing and in solo improvisations. Sometimes, they know their solo is coming. Other times, not so much.
“In a lot of big bands, one or two players take the solos,” Nimmer said. “Everyone in this band is a master soloist. We kinda look around and see who hasn’t played yet. The piano is a texture changer. If we’ve a trumpet solo and two sax solos, I know they’ll be looking to the piano to change it up from all the horns.”
The orchestra plays a great deal, at home in New York and on the road. Its members sign contracts for all known gigs at the beginning of the year. But it’s not a full-time job; they get together to rehearse just before tours and concerts. Everyone in the band has his own smaller group or plays in one. Nimmer, as a member of a rhythm section including bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, are the rhythm section when Marsalis plays gigs with subgroups from quartet to septet. Nimmer has appeared with Marsalis when he’s been a guest artist with the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic.
Still, Nimmer finds time for his own trio. The group has recorded four albums in Japan, on the Venus Records label.
“The albums have done really well in Japan,” Nimmer said. “Japan is a big market for jazz; they have a lot of respect for our music. The label’s really been good to me; they got me onto a magazine cover a couple of years ago.”
All that worked out pretty well for Mr. Nimmer. It seems this girl was working in a record store in Tokyo…
“She’d sold some of my albums and recognized me while I was in the store,” Nimmer said. They became friends and then more than friends. He finally convinced her to move to New York. Dan and Hisana Nimmer are now the proud parents and Milena Nimmer, born Aug. 14.
Which just goes to show, fellows: Chicks dig jazz.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $33-$93 at the Marcus Center box office; call 414 273-7206 or order online. This efvent is part of the Marcus Center Presents series; next up: Savion Glover, Nov. 8.