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New album from trumpeter/vocalist Chris Saunders

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    Posted: 15 Jun 2021 at 7:19pm
Released May 31, 2021
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The CHRIS SAUNDERS BAND’s newest album, DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES, is rooted in soul jazz and blues with a subtle reference to pop thrown in for good measure. The CD is the second project from the Chris Saunders Band and follows their 2016 release Outside My Window. Saunders also released three other studio projects of all original music with various combinations of musicians under the name Big Skin, which includes Crazy Memory (2009), Sandancer (2003), and Moon over Tuesday (2000).
Saunders is a cornet/trumpet player, singer, and songwriter. He has a smokey, soulful voice whose timbre and phrasing sound much like his horn. As a singer, he has been heavily influenced by Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf and Louis Armstrong, with whom he has an especially strong affinity. A native and current resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, he and his group have been performing together for 10 years and are mainstays on the Bay Area music scene. Saunders is the frontman, but it has always been about the band and the sum of the parts.
After a complicated early life including his parents divorcing, Saunders felt fortunate growing up in a happy, loving household with lots of music. He was particularly close to his grandparents, who were instrumental in shaping his taste in music. He says his first paying gig was when he was 11 years old when his paternal grandmother paid him to sing and play trumpet on “The Darktown Strutters Ball.” His maternal grandfather was a trumpet player in a big band. Growing up, jazz, blues and classical music were always on the turntable.
Saunders started whistling tunes at 11 months old, singing in performances at 9 years old, and playing trumpet at 11. At first, he played by ear, but later learned to read music in high school as a member of the school band and choir. He played in an R&B band during and after high school and shared the stage once with Country Joe and the Fish and Howlin’ Wolf at the Fillmore West. Saunders’ stepfather was an ex-Marine who instilled in him a sense of duty and patriotism, so at 18, he enlisted in the Marines. He spent 13 months in Vietnam at the height of the war. When MLK and then Robert Kennedy were assassinated, he became very aware that there was something wrong. “A new political awareness was in motion, and my experiences in Vietnam certainly gave me a lot of material for my songs, not to mention lifelong sadness.” After his tour of duty, he experienced survival guilt as he had lost countless brothers.
Back in civilian life, Saunders enrolled in college to study music. He also fronted bands and began gigging on the local music scene, where he shared the stage and recording studios with many well-known names in jazz and pop, notable sidemen from famous bands, and top studio musicians. Music has always been central to his life, even after marrying and starting a family. Although he earned money as a musician, he wound up working at various day jobs to support his family while performing several nights a week with his bands. His early experiences taught him the value of a loving family life and the importance of doing the things that bring you joy.
 Saunders has been writing songs since high school, and his earlier recordings mainly featured his original compositions. He began branching out to perform covers penned by other artists on his previous album, Outside My Window.
On DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES, Saunders includes a mix of covers and originals, which he co-wrote with his collaborator, pianist and group co-founder KEN COOK. Cook is an in-demand pianist, bandleader, recording artist, sideman, and educator. He has performed in Europe, South America, and around much of the USA with various groups, including the legendary New Orleans singer Johnny Adams and Oakland Blues artist Terrie Odabi and cellist Mark Summer (co-founder of the Turtle Island Quartet). Besides leading his own jazz trio, he performs regularly with Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, and vocalist Deborah Winters.
Drummer MICHAEL ARAGON has performed in a wide variety of musical venues from R&B to country and jazz and played with many jazz greats. Bassist ROB FORDYCE is a versatile, seasoned veteran of the greater Bay Area scene. Latin percussionist LUIS CARBO was born in Ecuador and raised in San Francisco.
The original songs on DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES by Saunders and Cook reflect Saunders’ poetic nature and political leanings. Saunders calls “Big Man'' a soul jazz cha-cha. The song is a subtle dig at the former resident of the White House. Saunders wrote the lyrics to “Butterflies and Chicken Wings'' with the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg in mind. “Lightning and a Feather'' is about the power and gentleness of nature, but it is also a metaphor about imperialism. The title tune, “Dancing with the Widow St. James,” is a coming-of-age story. “Low Tide Rising on a Devil Wind'' is about climate change that was inspired by the massive fires California has experienced over the last several years.
Saunders along with Cook and Aragon chose to cover several songs written by composers with whom they share a deep affinity. He opens the album with “River’s Invitation” by Percy Mayfield, a bluesy tune where the singer sits on the bank of a river, telling the muddy currents of his despair over a departed lover. “I Wonder” is a beautiful ballad by Cecil Gant, a blues singer who died at a young age but was a major influence on the early development of rock ‘n’ roll. "Am I Blue," written by Harry Akst and Grant Clarke in 1929 has been recorded by many artists and has been used in dozens of movies. Here Saunders updates it by changing the song’s form and re-imagining the intro. “Life is a Struggle” was written in 1960 by Chris Kenner, whose songs were covered by the top rock and blues groups throughout the 1960s. “Lullaby of the Leaves” is a 1932 jazz standard by Bernice Petkere with lyrics by Joe Young. "I Don't Need No Doctor" is an R&B song written by Ashford & Simpson in 1966 and made famous by Ray Charles.
Saunders’ early experiences -- the difficulties posed with an earlier broken family and his experiences at war – have shaped his musical persona. His singing, cornet/trumpet playing, and composing on DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES exude the soulfulness of an artist who has absorbed life’s tough lessons but has transformed them into the joy and solace that making music affords.
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DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES was released on May 31, 2021 and is available everywhere.
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