Phil Nimmons celebrated with tribute album led by grandson

Phil Nimmons is often referred to as “the Dean of Canadian jazz.”

In a career that’s spanned almost 80 years, he’s regarded as one of this country’s foremost clarinetists, bandleaders, composers, arrangers and educators. His most well-known ensembles are Nimmons ‘N’ Nine and later Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six, with which he created a body of work that is still performed by bands around the world.

Nimmons was awarded the very first Juno Award for best jazz album in 1977. He’s been inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Hall of Fame, he’s been awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, and he’s received Canada’s highest honour for an artist: the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. And those are just a few of his many awards and honours.

His most recent honour is The Nimmons Tribute, a recording of his music performed by friends and former students and produced and arranged by none other than his grandson Sean Nimmons-Patterson, a fantastic musician in his own right.

Nimmons-Patterson joined us for a conversation about the project and the musical legacy of his grandfather.

This is a beautiful record. Congratulations. It just sounds so good.

Thank you so much. I’m so glad that you like it. So far, the feedback has been great and we’re really happy with it.

How did this project come about?

The driving force really has been my mother, Holly. We talked about getting a grant to put together an album of Phil’s stuff. It sort of seemed like a bit of a pipe dream, but we started working towards it and we got the grant. That was two years ago, so it’s been a journey to get to this point. The idea was to pay tribute to Phil, to bring back some of my personal favourite tunes of his — and he has so many tunes. It’s unbelievable, the catalogue and the amount of material he’s written and arranged over his lifetime. I wanted to do my versions with a smaller ensemble. A lot of these tunes were written for big bands. This is an octet — five horns and a rhythm section — so it was a great opportunity to really dig into his music. In the process, I learned a lot about him, things that I didn’t know or that I took for granted. Dissecting the music and putting it back together has been an incredible process.

That’s an interesting point. Can you talk a little bit about something you learned about Phil while doing this?

All my life, everyone loved and revered Phil. You sort of take that for granted as a kid, not actually knowing why specifically people love what he does. His writing is just incredible. There’s a reason why he’s so revered. It’s beautiful, lyrical writing, and with the instrumentation choices that he made — an interesting part of this was trying to recreate some of the sonic textures with a smaller band — he got so much out of the band.

You have an astoundingly phenomenal group of musicians on this record. Kevin Turcotte, Tara Davidson, Mike Murley, William Carn, Perry White, Jon Maharaj, Ethan Ardelli and you. How did you come to the decision of working with that particular group of musicians?

First of all, they’re first-rate, incredible musicians. I grew up listening to most of them — definitely Kevin and Mike. But the idea for the project was to make it with everyone having a connection to Phil. Everyone has their own personal connection to him in some way. That was the idea. The first rehearsal was an incredible moment, because we’d been working on these arrangements for so long and we finally got to hear the tunes, and everybody had such an intimate familiarity with Phil that that first bar of music was just… It sent shivers down my spine, because everybody knew exactly what it was supposed to feel like.

What does Phil think about the project?

He didn’t want to hear anything until he got the CD. He wanted the final product. He was very happy with it, thankfully. A big relief. I didn’t want to butcher his music. He was very complimentary, and I think he’ll continue to listen to it. We haven’t really had a chance to speak too much because of the circumstances, so it’s been hard to connect. But I know that when the time is right, we’re going to sit down and have a chat.

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So many people have learned from Phil over the years. Working with his arrangements and trying to put your own spin on it, were there any lessons that you kept in mind that you yourself had learned from Phil?

It’s funny because I actually went to the University of Toronto and studied with him there, which was an interesting experience to have him as my teacher. One of the things he talks about is establishing something thematic. He was always talking about form. There’s a great video on our Facebook page of our bassist Jon Maharaj talking about how Phil would always turn to you in big band and, in his low, bellowing voice, he’d say, “Fooorm.” That was his mantra. Really good form is a hallmark of all of his writing.

Any other plans for the project, beyond the release? I know it’s challenging right now, but do you have any long-term plans you’d like to see come to fruition?

Honestly, getting to today was the big goal, so it’s a big relief. Of course, we really wanted to do an album release concert, and we may still do something, perhaps virtually. We just squeaked in the recording in that COVID-19 window when cases were still low. Thank God we were able to get the recording done. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I’d love to play these tunes. And there are so many more. This is Volume 1, and I’m hoping we can do a Volume 2 at some point and explore more of his amazing material. I’ve already got a list of tunes. It would be great to go on tour and play these songs all over Canada, because that was always something that he did. He brought the music all over Canada. I’d like that, but we’ll have to see what the future holds.

Volume 1 – To the Nth is the title. Tell me about that title.

There’s a lot to unpack in that. The album cover is a shot of an island from a place that’s been inside the family for generations. There used to be this sign on the road that just had a bunch of “N”s all over it. That was the way of marking the road that you would take. I just thought “to the Nth degree,” it’s a mysterious, open-ended thing. That magic that Phil has, it’s the Nth degree.

This interview has been edited and condensed.