Phil Nimmons (clarinet) and David Braid (piano) inspire each other at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2006. ©Brett Delmage, 2006
Phil Nimmons (clarinet) and David Braid (piano) inspire each other at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2006. ©Brett Delmage, 2006

Clarinetist Phil Nimmons, one of Canada's leading jazz bandleaders, composers, and educators, completely reinvented himself in his 80s. He moved away from the highly-organized quartets and large ensembles he was famous for, and started playing completely improvised duets with pianist David Braid. 

Nimmons and Braid have played more than 100 concerts together over the past nine years, including Ottawa Chamberfest in 2011. At each concert, they have explored new territory and performed without an advance road map, but still retained their mutual love of melody and jazz form. 

They'll be doing that again this Friday evening at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage – with an added photographic development.

Braid told this week how inspiring he found Nimmons' new direction.

“Like, how courageous is that? Think of other jazz musicians in their 80s or even 90s. I mean, it's wonderful that they're still playing, I'm not knocking that. But usually, they're doing the things that made them famous 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. But in Phil's case, he's so special. He actually decided to reinvent himself in his 80s. That's amazing.”

Nimmons is 90 years old in 2013, and the NAC show is one of several celebrating that anniversary and including a Nimmons 'n' Braid duet. The national MusicFest competitions in Toronto featured a special tribute concert in May. As well, the University of Toronto, where Nimmons is Director Emeritus of the jazz studies program, will hold a “Nimmons@90” concert on November 14.

But the NAC show has two extra aspects: it will celebrate the release of the duo's new double CD, and the second half will incorporate the photographs of American artist Nathan Wirth, projected on a screen as the two perform.

The album is called Suite St. John's: Falling Through. It incorporates two concerts, both recorded by the same team at CBC Radio in St. John's, Newfoundland. The first is an improvised duet concert by Nimmons and Braid from 2010 (when Nimmons was 87); the second is a solo piano concert by Braid from 2011, which includes some music from Braid's last solo recording, Verge, and some new pieces.

A photographer inspired by the music

The CD also includes artwork by Wirth, whom Braid first found when he was looking for artwork for Verge. “I just emailed him right away and said, 'I love your work. It's fantastic. I would like to use one of your photographs for my CD artwork.'”, Braid said.

When Wirth replied, it turned out he admired Braid's music, and in particular, the recording that Braid and Nimmons had made of their very first duet concert back in 2004. He told Braid, “I really love what you're doing” and gave him carte blanche to use any of his art pieces for any of his future CDs.

Braid realized that Wirth's images dealing with water and rocks would be a good match for a CD recorded in Newfoundland. They agreed to collaborate, and Wirth picked seven images based on a rough version of the 2010 concert.

“He did this very interesting thing where he found some images which felt reflected a quality of each improvisation. What he did was, in the darkroom while he was listening to the music, he developed the images based on how he felt. As he described it to me, the process of developing an image is quite improvisatory. He was using the music as an impetus in what direction to go in developing his images.”

The CD is packaged in a small book, the size of a 45rpm record jacket, Braid said, which includes the photographs “so the images and the music match together”.

Wirth will come up from San Francisco for Friday's concert, and will choose images to project on screens behind the stage “based on the feeling that he has while Phil and I are improvising”.

Braid expected the images might also influence how he and Nimmons played: “We've never done this before live, so it will be a total first date in the sense of the excitement of doing something like this.”

A totally unexpected teaching moment

Braid first met Nimmons well before he established his own reputation as a jazz pianist and composer. He now regularly tours as far away as Europe and China: performing solo, leading his own sextet, and plays regularly with major Canadian jazz musicians like Mike Murley.

He was in high school in the early 1990s, when he saw a poster advertising a jazz camp near Parry Sound. Nimmons had founded the camp, originally intending it to be an eastern version of the Banff Centre, and was camp director.

“I didn't know much about jazz at that point, but I was curious to find out. 'Phil Nimmons. Who is that?'”

Every afternoon at the camp, Nimmons would curate listening sessions. “We sat in this big barn. Phil would play this incredible jazz music, classical music and just talk about what he thought were the interesting things about it. To that point, I hadn't met someone who was that passionate about art music in the way that he was and really articulate about why it was important. That made a big impression on me.”

The students also played in large ensembles at the camp, and often those ensembles would play Nimmons' compositions, which Braid said was his first exposure to Nimmons' music.

Then, about a year later, Braid was selected to play in a youth all‑star band at MusicFest, and Nimmons was the guest soloist with that band. They were playing a piece by Nimmons from The Atlantic Suite called "Islands", which includes a piano-clarinet duet.

The music contained very precise chord symbols, Braid said, but at rehearsal he realized didn't fully understand the notation.

“When we got to this duet, I just froze up. I didn't know how to play the chords. In fact, I didn't even know how to read some of them. Phil came over, as he does, and sat down at the piano to show me how to play these chords. I can still recall, in my memory, watching his hands on the keyboard and trying to memorize every gesture.”

“Then he said, 'Here, you give it a try.' Then I kind of worked my way through it. That night at the concert, when the duet part came up, I did the best I could. I guess it turned out OK.”

“To show his appreciation or to disguise his dissatisfaction... it was probably the appreciation ... he came over to the piano after the duet and thanked me by putting me in a headlock on stage. Totally unexpected. Totally a Phil thing to do. This is in front of a few thousand people or something. That was my first personal encounter with him.”

That fall (1994), Braid enrolled in the jazz studies program at the University of Toronto, where he studied under Nimmons, and also came out to hear Nimmons when he played in local jazz clubs.

Halfway through his degree, Braid said, he developed a strong intuitive feeling of compatibility. “Maybe it was just something in what I was doing, I felt would fit together in where Phil liked to be in his imagination when he played.”

Both of them tended to come into school early, Nimmons to beat the traffic and Braid to practice: “Once in a while I would knock on his door and, hey, we should play sometime, drop some hints. But it never happened.”

After Braid graduated, he went back to Nimmons' camp as a faculty assistant, he said, and probably jammed a few times with Nimmons. But they didn't play together in a formal concert until 2004.

"To hell with it, let's just play free."

Braid had been invited, for the second time, to play a duet concert in a small church in Dundas, Ontario. The presenter asked whom he'd like to play with, and “the first name that popped into my mind was Phil. It turns out that the curator was a clarinetist and actually also a former U of T student in the classical department. He told me that Phil had given him some tips on how to improvise on the blues.”

The curator was enthusiastic, so Braid invited Nimmons – and he agreed.

“Being the younger one and at the beginning of my career and wanting to do things right and properly and be prepared, I researched the tunes that Phil liked to play, the standard tunes, and learned some of his original compositions that he was playing with his quartet at the time. Just in case he would want to do these things, then I'd be ready.

“I never mentioned repertoire [expecting] he would give me some indication. We made arrangements for me to go pick him up and drive him to the church. He hadn't mentioned anything about music, so finally, we're pulling up to the driveway of the church and I just said, 'Phil, so what do you want to play today? What do you want to do?'

“He didn't really pause too long. He just said, 'To hell with it, let's just play free.'”

Despite the fact they'd never played a formal concert together before, Braid said he had “this very calm assured feeling that everything would be great. It was fairly daring, I suppose. But I didn't feel that. I felt like I would know what to do.”

Nimmons had brought recording equipment for that concert, and they ended up releasing it as a CD, called Beginnings. The recording is as played: “the first note is the first note we played together. ... Everything came together very easily, very smoothly. We were easily in each other's minds. It was slightly miraculous, in my opinion.”

The audience is the third performer

The concert also set the format for all the subsequent ones. “After we played the first piece, Phil was quite happy. He joked around and said, 'OK, let's go home.' He asked the audience if they had any questions. What this did was, it started this dialogue between the performer and the audience. Some people made comments. Some people asked questions. It completely broke down this performer/audience barrier, and brought the listener right into the circle of creativity. I felt like that dialogue started to feed somehow into what we were playing.”

“We've kept that format ever since. When we play, we invite people to make comments and participate. The energy that results from that plays an integral role in the music. Sometimes we joke that our concerts are almost like a trio, where the third person is actually the audience members.”

Braid emphasized that their playing free at their concerts “does not mean playing freely from everything. In fact, I think what our version of free playing means is having a free choice to play melodically or not playing melodically. Play inside or play outside. Play simple or play complex. Play very, very dissonant or very, very consonant. Play something that sounds like a folk melody, Play something that sounds like nothing. Play sheer noise. Freely for us really means, 'Let's just pull [music] out of all possibilities.' ”

Their free choice of what to do includes keeping to conventions, if they choose, which “means that we're drawing on influences of the jazz traditions, which we're familiar with. Also, quite a lot of classical music that we've both listened to.”

And because both are prolific composers (both jazz and classical), “we're inclined to want to create form, because form is the cornerstone of composition.”

Riffing on motifs, creating form

Braid said Nimmons usually starts off: “he likes to joke that he has less time. Often what happens is, Phil suggests something by what he plays at the very beginning. It could be a melody. It could be a rhythm. It could be just a colour. It could be a sound. From that, I have to make a decision about how to respond to that, and set up some kind of structure to which he can now react.

“From there, it's like martial arts. It's like a kung fu match, where two people are improvising based on a skill set, using reflexes, thinking without thinking.

“I think there's a similarity between this type of duet improvising and two comedians who are improvising with each other. Not for the comical element but just extracting motifs. They're riffing on motifs. They're creating form, and the form has a narrative to it. That kind of logic also exists very much when we're playing and when a lot of free players play.”

How do they know that a particular idea has run its course?

“Sometimes it's very obvious. We both intuitively feel and the audience feels that it's coming to a conclusion.

“Other times the ending can come as a surprise. All this stuff will be going on and all of a sudden everything will become completely consonant. Then the piece will end suddenly. We'll probably start laughing because we didn't realize how we actually got to that point.

The new CD contains one piece like that, Braid said: a short piece which is “just a flurry of notes. Very fast notes and single lines, like hummingbirds and chaos, complete chaos. Then all of a sudden, we both play this descending line on time and end on exactly the same note and it's the end. It's amazing. The probability of that happening is so low. But that can happen by surprise; we suddenly find the tonic sound and the piece has to end because we've arrived.”

Braid said he was always surprised how every concert he played with Nimmons was so different, without them making any conscious effort to make them different. “I might say that Phil is extremely creative and creativity is unpredictable. I think that helps propel a direction. Then whatever direction we are then, somehow we have to do something that complements what's going on.”

Over time, he said, he learned not to try to steer the music, and to play outside his comfort level when playing that way was the appropriate thing to do at that moment. “I learned that you can never fight it. You just have to follow where, I hate to use the cliché, but wherever the muse is going. Sometimes it goes to a place you don't want to go but the most appropriate thing to do is to stay there and be patient and wait and see what happens. To give up your sense of ego, of desire, of where you would like things to go and just stayed focused on the music itself.”

Phil Nimmons "can make the clarinet burn your ears"

Braid has also had a long improvisatory partnership with cellist Matt Brubeck (their CD, Twotet/Deuxtet, was a 2008 Juno nominee), whom he said was also a great improviser. “He's fearless and exciting to play with. Matt is so versatile that he can make the cello sound like four or five different instruments.”

How was he different to play with than Nimmons? Partly, the instrument: “a cellist has different vocabulary, different color, different range, different capabilities of the instrument.”

With Nimmons, “just the nature of the clarinet and Phil's versatility as a clarinetist. He can make the clarinet burn your ears. He could also play very soft and velvety or very rhythmic, and very outside and very inside, and really crazy and really consonant.

“Matt does those things, too, but because the cello is so different the feeling of the music just goes in a different direction. Also, the way I would play the piano to accompany that would be totally different.”

And partly the two personalities: “Matt's musical personality, the things that he loves, it's different than the resources that Phil has.”

Being more of a pianist and more of a musician by playing acoustic

And also amplification. While Brubeck often plays amplified, “Phil and I only play acoustic. Getting in touch with acoustic even in large places where the sound crew is upset that we're not using microphones and still playing acoustic in those spaces is really interesting for me.”

This fall, Braid spent four weeks touring across Europe, starting with playing his older mainstream jazz compositions with two different sextets, one from Switzerland and one from Denmark, along with some new sextet material he wrote for those groups.

David Braid playing piano with chopsticks at Cafe Paradiso ©Brett Delmage
David Braid playing piano with chopsticks at Cafe Paradiso ©Brett Delmage
He will also play that material with a Chinese sextet for a tour in China later in November. That tour will also include a concert in Ulan Bator to commemorate the opening of the first Canadian embassy in Mongolia, which will include some special pieces Braid wrote based on Mongolian themes.

In the next year, though, he said he wanted to concentrate on newer compositions for piano and string quartet. While in Europe, Braid played with two string quartets: Lumos in Finland, and Epoch in the Czech Republic, and plans to return to play with both next year. He also has a recording in the works with a Dutch string quartet called Zapp4.

He said he really loved playing with strings. “I think the biggest attraction is that, I'll just say it simply, I can play quiet. I can actually play a lot more; I can get a lot more colour out of my instrument. I miss that when I'm playing jazz when it's loud. Like sometimes, it's ridiculous. I'm playing and I'm just hammering the piano as hard as possible to create energy and to hear myself. That's fine, maybe, for a few moments in a concert, but a whole night? Then night after night of this? That seems to be normal now.

“Or you play soft and you turn up the microphone so loud that you're not actually hearing the piano at all anymore. You're hearing the piano go through some kind of machine.”

Which leads back to his all-acoustic duets with Nimmons. Playing acoustic, Braid said, allows him to “be more of a pianist and more of a musician.”

"It's OK to reinvent yourself and keep trying to move forward"

Composing for a string quartet, “I have the opportunity to create a lot more details, because string players have virtuosity in their tradition. It's not just that they can play lots of notes, but the palette of colors and bowing and things like counterpoint and integrating jazz rhythms into that format is very interesting to me.”

“I'm not really concerned if someone might say, 'Hey, this is not jazz!' I'm hoping that in my lifetime, the whole concept of genre will sort of fade a little bit and we can get back to the idea [that] music is music. It has melody, harmony, form, color, energy.”

Which again leads back to Nimmons, “because our duets, I think, are hard to categorize sometimes. Is this jazz? Is it classical? Is it new music? What is this exactly? I find it quite refreshing to have the free choice to choose what I like and bring it into my music. I try to do that as best I can when I'm playing with Phil if it's appropriate. With my string quartet project, for example, I just want to use the musical resources I like and create music from them. What's wrong with that?”

“I've got the jazz training. But it's 2013. I don't want to feel like I've been playing the same way for ten years now. Personally, I want to keep growing and trying new things, and think about some new music for the future. [In] that idea also, I think I've been influenced a lot by Phil.”

Nimmons' example of reinventing himself “confirms that it's OK to reinvent yourself and keep trying to move forward. Forget what anyone thinks, and make music with that conviction and the integrity that you're doing things for the right reasons. I also have Phil to thank for maybe helping open that door for me.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See also: