Dan Nimmer’s tale of talent and a lucky break resembles the story line of a feel-good movie. An accomplished twenty-one-year-old pianist, he moved from his native Milwaukee to New York City in early 2004. Wynton Marsalis heard him and was so impressed that when the piano chair in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra became vacant, Marsalis put Nimmer in it. The pianist also tours as a member of Marsalis’s quartet, catapulted virtually overnight into the upper echelons of the world’s jazz capital. Marsalis may have been influenced in his hiring decision by the fact that Nimmer can play uncannily like Wynton Kelly. Marsalis was named for Kelly, one of his pianist father Ellis’s musical heroes and role models, and his admiration for Kelly is well known.
In any case, Nimmer’s talents are on impressive display in a new CD called Kelly Blue (Venus) after the title tune composed by Wynton Kelly. In addition to the aural evidence, drummer Jimmy Cobb’s presence on the album bespeaks endorsement of Nimmer’s authenticity in the Kelly style. Cobb was Kelly’s rhythm section mate in the Miles Davis quintet and sextet of the late 1950s and early sixties and is the drummer on Kelly’s own 1959 album called–guess what–Kelly Blue. Kelly was noted for a combination of driving swing, delicacy of touch and harmonic depth. Nimmer achieves all of that–relaxation on top of the beat, filagreed runs, blues inflections, left-hand punctuations on the off-beats, lightning parallel octives, deep swing. John Webber is the bassist, performing his Paul Chambers role so convincingly that someone hearing the CD in a blindfold test might confidently guess that it was a previously unreleased album by Kelly’s trio. Kelly died in 1971 at the age of thirty-nine.
Where Nimmer goes from here, whether he has aspirations and inclinations outside of his Kelly bag, remains to be disclosed. For now, it’s great fun to hear him emulating one of the most affecting of all jazz pianists. For background on Nimmer, plus photographs and an interview, go here.
Venus, imported from Japan, specializes, although not exclusively, in piano trios. Among the pianists recorded by Tetsuo Hara, the label’s impresario, are Eddie Higgins, Bill Charlap, Kenny Barron, Denny Zeitlin, Steve Kuhn, Barry Harris, Harold Mabern and Jacky Terrasson. On Hara’s trips to New York to capture leading jazz artists, he has also recorded guitarist Russell Malone, saxophonists Archie Shepp, Bob Kindred and Eric Alexander, and the One For All group with Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Steve Davis, David Hazeltine, David Williams and Joe Farnsworth. Venus CDs are beautifully recorded and packaged, often with cover photographs of beautiful women, some less than fully clothed. The albums harken back to the 1950s and sixties when American labels like Riverside, Blue Note, Prestige, Fantasy and Contemporary filled the mainstream niche that Venus, Criss Cross, Marshmallow and other overseas companies now aim to occupy.
I asked Charlap and Higgins how it is to work with Hara.
He makes some suggestion of tunes. Mostly, he just allows the dates to happen, lets the guys play. It’s almost like the old companies used to be. Nobody was worried about being on magazine covers. They just played. He has created a market in Japan.
His taste in jazz runs pretty much along the lines of the Great American Song Book. When he gets ready to do a CD, he sends Todd Barkan, his U.S. producer, a list of tunes for me to choose from. Todd reads me the list over the phone and we decide on 14 or so that I like. Then we pick sidemen, set a date and a studio, and I fly to NYC and record it–two or sometimes three CDs in a two-to-four day period. Venus is geared to the Japanese market, where it flourishes. Rarely a month goes by without a Venus CD in the #1 spot on the Swing Journal jazz charts. As far as the U.S. market is concerned, I don’t think that Venus has a distribution setup, although Amazon lists some at high prices.
When Venus CDs show up in US stores and on web sites, they go for import prices as high as thirty-five dollars. eJazzLines‘ $23.73 price for Nimmer’s Kelly Blue indicates that if you shop around, you may find them for less than $30.00 US. If you read Japanese, you may want to explore Venus’s web site.