Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Nebraska Jazz: Bill Wimmer & Friends

Meet Bill Wimmer, one of Nebraska’s leading jazz musicians. Before the New York jazz snobs out there make a snarky comment about him being Nebraska’s only jazz musician, keep in mind both guitarist Dave Stryker and drummer Victor Lewis cut their teeth on the Cornhusker State scene before setting off for the City. Indeed, they join Wimmers on his latest release, Project Omaha, a celebration of their Nebraskan roots.

Wimmer may have assembled the Nebraskan supergroup, but Omaha was actually recorded live in Vail. (Colorado is a bordering plains state, so close enough). Though the Omaha group had never played together before, their Nebraskan affinity sounds like it brought them together nicely, starting with the appealing Latinesque workout on Dexter Gordon’s “Soy Califa,” featuring exciting solos by the leader, Stryker and Tony Gulizia. It quickly becomes apparent on the Gordon standard Wimmer has a fresh, full-bodied sound on tenor that would sound impressive in any New York club.

Throughout Omaha, Wimmer shows a facility for picking some classics of the hardbop era that still do not sound overplayed, like “Rhyne, Rhythm and Song,” composed by longtime Wes Montgomery organist Mel Rhyne. Wimmer really tears into his solo and Gulizia’s keyboards have a pleasing groovy Hammond vibe. Perhaps the highlight of the set is the haunting “Gypsy Blue” by the criminally underappreciated late tenor player Tina Brooks. Wimmer sounds audibly inspired by the composition and Stryker is also quite eloquent, propelled along by Lewis’s tasty drumming.

Perhaps the only minor missteps of Omaha are the vocal features for Tony Gulizia. In truth, the keyboardist has a decent voice, but the arrangements have slightly loungey feel. The notable exception though is Big Joe Turner’s “Cherry Red,” on which the Omaha band digs deep into the blues bag. (Gulizia’s brother Joey also lends his percussion talents to Omaha, probably best heard in their surprisingly ruckus rendition of Jobim’s bossa nova standard “Felicidade.”)

In addition to his great tenor sound, Wimmer is also quite accomplished on the soprano saxophone, even closing the set on the instrument. Buoyant with a somewhat exotic introduction, Stryker’s “Carnival,” is a rousing conclusion to a very satisfying disk.

Yes, evidently they really do play jazz in Nebraska (and Colorado), which Wimmer and associates prove in high style on Omaha. It is a thoroughly entertaining straight ahead jazz release that deserves to be heard nationally.