Presumably, the title of singer / guitarist Chris Cain's new CD, King of the Blues, refers not to Cain himself but to one of his idols, the legendary bluesman B.B. King, who passed away in May 2015. Cain, who was born and raised in San Jose, CA, attended his first B.B. King concert at age three, and among the album's nine tracks are a pair written by King, "Whole Lotta Lovin'" and "So Excited." Cain composed four others to complement down-home themes by Nina Simone ("Girl from Joe's"), Carole King / Gerry Goffin ("Heartbreaker") and pianist Alan Broadbent ("Sidewalk Stanley," written for the Woody Herman band when Broadbent was a member).
King of the Blues was recorded in New Zealand, and Cain is backed by that country's premier jazz ensemble, the Rodger Fox Big Band. Unusual for a blues session, perhaps, but the combination works rather well. Although the band is intensely involved, it keeps its distance when Cain commands the spotlight. Cain has a strong, steady voice, sings on key, has a well-honed flair and conspicuous fondness for the blues, and, like King, plays a mean guitar. He also writes well, and his quartet of songs ("Helping Hand," "A Year Ago Today," "Peeties Theme," "Bossa for Josie") are among the album's highlights.
"Peeties Theme" and "Bossa for Josie" are instrumentals, with trombonist Fox and trumpeter Ben Hunt soloing crisply on "Peeties," pianist Anita Schwabe on "Josie." Tenor saxophonist Mike Isaacs adds a solo on "Whole Lotta Lovin,'" while Erna Ferry plays blues harp and Bryn van Vliet solos on alto sax on "So Excited." Cain's raunchy guitar is front and center on "Stanley," which was arranged by Broadbent; New Zealander Daniel Hayles scored everything else. Musically speaking, the album is first-rate; as for its blues quotient, that's harder to reckon, as this reviewer is far from well-versed in that genre. Those who are familiar with Cain's work should know roughly what to expect; those who aren't should check him out.
Helping Hand; Whole Lotta Lovin’; A Year Ago Today; Peeties Theme; So Excited; Girl from Joe’s; Bossa for Josie; Heartbreaker; Sidewalk Stanley.
Chris Cain: guitar, vocals, with the Rodger Fox Big Band – Rodger Fox: music director, trombone; Lex French: trumpet; Ben Hunt: trumpet; James Wisnesky: trumpet; Chris Selley: trumpet; Chris Buckland: alto sax; Bryn van Vliet: alto sax; Mike Isaacs: tenor sax; Jake Baxendale: tenor sax; Eilish Wilson: baritone sax; Chris Fox: trombone; Cameron Kidby: trombone; Damian Forlong: trombone; Kurt Gibson: bass trombone; Nick Granville: guitar; Anita Schwabe: keyboards; Rowan Clark: bass; Lauren Ellis: drums.