Big-band jazz may have peaked in popularity in the 1930s, but Patrick Williams is out to prove it can still be vital. He did it once before with his Grammy-winning 1974 album Threshold, and this return to the bandstand is equally satisfying.
Williams, best known as a composer-arranger for TV and film (Columbo, Mary Tyler Moore) brings the right mix of retro and innovation to his latest project. Recorded live at Capitol Studio A with the great Al Schmitt engineering, it features an all-star cast of vets such as Hubert Laws, Tom Scott, Dean Parks, Gene Cipriano and Peter Erskine. But from the opening title track’s 2001: A Space Odyssey-goes-Cuban groove, and angular soloing from Bob Sheppard and Chuck Findley, it’s obvious that this isn’t your granddaddy’s big band. Williams has upped the ante by adding French horns and percussionists to his 21-piece band, and rather than rely on a safe repertoire of standards, he features self-penned material that has more in common with Steely Dan than with Glenn Miller.
With his flair for scoring, the best pieces unfold like little movies, with stirring mood shifts. The labyrinthine melody on “Heat” evokes a murder mystery before coasting into a top-down cruise that is pure private shamus. “Song for a Pretty Girl” is a sun-dappled reverie full of soft woodwinds and September kisses, and the brassy kaleidoscope of “The Sun Will Shine Today” evokes synchronized Chicago-style dance routines, all sizzle and cascading limbs.
Williams—with the financial patronage of movie producer Sidney Kimmel—has turned back the clock, but in a way that sounds both nostalgic and new.