Even if you’ve never previously gotten wind of Bay Area soul-jazz-blues bandleader and mainstay Chris Saunders or the previous three albums he recorded some years back as Big Skin, you’ll swear when you listen to his band’s alternately infectiously buoyant and deeply contemplative and though provoking album Dancing With The Widow St. James that there’s something invitingly familiar about his raw, dusky, ultra-soulful and easy drawling voice.
Officially, the singer and cornet player/trumpeter’s influences include Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong, and you can hear all those. But other times, you’ll swear it’s Gregory Porter, Randy Newman, even B.B. King. The good news about having a voice that’s so cool that you have to list that many artists for comparison is that it ensures that every ear will pay rapt attention to Saunders’ fanciful mix of lyrically pointed originals and dynamic re-imaginings of craftily chosen slight obscurities.
The best entry points to Saunders’ immersive and intoxicating energy are the soul jazz cha cha cha “Big Man,” the New Orleans spiced piano and horn driven romp “Butterflies and Chicken Wings,” the hypnotic, percussive march our fragile relationship with nature “Lighting and a Feather” and the lilting, slightly melancholy climate change themed “Low Tide Rising on a Devil Wind.” He comes by his social activism naturally, having served in Vietnam and lived through the culture shock of the MLK and RFK assassinations.
Saunders’ equally thought provoking “cover songs” include must hear gems by Percy Mayfield (the traditional blues lament “River’s Invitation”), Cecil Gant (the graceful reflective ballad “I Wonder”), Ashford & Simpson (another classic blues, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”) and Harry Akst/Grant Clarke (the lighthearted take on heartbreak “Am I Blue”).