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JAN. 28, 2012

Milwakee jazzmen tend to get shipped elsewhere once they’re established, but there’s still no shortage of innovative players in the city stretching the definition of jazz on any night of the week. Sponsored by the nonprofit Milwaukee Jazz Vision, the fourth Eastside Jazzfest concert showcased some of that talent Saturday night.

Opening the night, Milwaukee Jazz Vision’s Student Combo toyed extensively with open blues structures, loosening Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” into a taut, crunchy hip-hop groove. The high-school and college student ensemble closed its set with a version of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” that spoke wonders about the players’ nascent maturity.

Despite a short set, and a dwindling public memory of trios of their ilk, Who’s Your Daddy Trio, the funky organ-based brainchild of Dan Trudell, revisited the past as often as they refreshed it. Drummer Dave Bayles and guitarist Mike Standal helped push Trudell’s organ to its voluminous breaking point in a soulful rendition of Don Patterson’s “The Good Life.”

Guitarist Manty Ellis, a longtime cornerstone of Milwaukee jazz, pushed his own quartet to similar depths. The 79-year-old arrived with a relaxed demeanor, his fluid gestures gliding across the fretboard as he chose notes carefully with a kinship to the piano’s percussive capabilities, especially in elastic blues material like Wes Montgomery’s “The Thumb” and Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.”

This expressiveness carried to Ellis’ rhythm section, particularly when things slowed to a crawl in Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” and a vein of narrative cool opened for bassist Ethan Bender to tell his own travel stories behind Sam Belton’s jumpy, trap-based drum solos. Minus the obvious forward motion, all three were content with the tunes’ slight re-harmonizations and short, emphatic bursts of inspiration that came and went freely. Ellis’ technique was arresting, building consistently on the basic template laid forth for so many, however long ago.

A sensitive soul by trade, the deceptively young Dan Nimmer is living proof that jazz lives and grows in Milwaukee—or at least comes back to pay its respects when the chance comes.

Barely 30, his anecdotes of dropping out to pursue music provided a humor hardened by the sometimes bleak status of arts education.

Assisted by drummer Brian Ritter and bassist Jake Vinsel, Nimmer found equal grace in timeworn standards and the modern vocabulary of handpicked originals. Opening with “Lu’s Bounce,” he played with welcome echoes of Wynton Kelly, lifted from Miles Davis’ modal classic “So What.” “Do You Mind?,” with its rumbling low end, didn’t so much ask a question as it summoned old spirits, some of which included McCoy Tyner in Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.”

Ritter and Vinsel then segued Nimmer’s “Modern Day Blues” into “Corcovado,” a bossa nova excursion that made a name for his rhythm section. From there things got funky once again on “Ray,” as Nimmer’s modern vocabulary played smartly against melodic bass-work.

To conclude, the headliner turned the spotlight back on himself for Duke Ellington’s solo ballad “Reflections in D.” The innate solitude of the composition lowered the blood pressure of everyone in the room, before Nimmer closed with a spontaneous, momentary vamp on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” then exited with quiet gratitude, promising he would return when the time was right.

Graham Marlowe is a volunteer for Milwaukee Jazz Vision.

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