It's almost impossible to sustain a touring big band in today's economy, so it's left to regional ensembles to keep the big band tradition alive. Most of these local groups don't play together frequently enough to develop a distinctive personality. But Steve Williams & Jazz Nation sound like a tight fraternity on this intelligent and accessible debut release. In fact, the D.C.-based ensemble compares favorably to better-known contemporary collectives such as the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the Chris Walden Big Band.
Reed player Williams spent six years as music director with the U.S. Navy Band Commodores before assembling his talented 17-piece group in 2010. The album offers a wide range of sophisticated originals, half of which were penned by the leader. Guest clarinetist and saxophonist Eddie Daniels also contributes a few compositions, with Williams arranging them all. Still swinging at age 70, Daniels colors his original tune "Hook or Crook?" with his graceful clarinet, and blows knockout tenor sax on his spiraling samba, "Inner Lines."
Williams' arrangements are crisp and creative. While his tunes "Entre Nous" and "Elyeska" are highly intricate, the bluesy shuffle " Certified" and a reggae-leaning take on Mike Noonan's "Where's Marty?" are peppy enough for pop-jazz radio. Williams' alto sax leads the way on the thoughtful 3/4 ballad "Thad's Lament." The swinging closer, "Cathel Brugha Blues," builds to a roaring climax and commemorates the Sinn Fein freedom fighter who died in the Irish Civil War.
Jazz Nation may lack star power, but they pack plenty of firepower. Most participants are former members of the military big bands along with a few of Williams' fellow alums from the renowned One O'Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. Their initial recording is an enjoyable listen from start to finish.