Lena Prima – Since the Storm (2010)

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Lena Prima centered this project with a pair of songs by her father, Louis Prima. But she didn’t settle for the simple goal of glowing tribute, either to this legendary New Orleans-born purveyor of post-war jump blues or to his era’s great American songbook. She had broader goals, and largely succeeds in achieving them.

Growing up between Louis Prima’s two lives in the Big Easy and in Las Vegas, Lena absorbed elements of both cultures, and that played out across Since the Storm. She is just as apt to tear into a broad statement of Sinatra-style purpose as she is to pay a loving, Cajun-influenced tribute to the city of her youth. That duality pushes the album along, sparking creative tensions and delightful changes of pace. Prima can portray the sensitive, emotive interpreter alongside pianist Dan Ellis and drummer John Torres II on a ballad like “I Cried.” But there’s also a knowing sass to “Crescent City,” which is goosed along by the addition of a funky accordion from Pete Contino.

Prima is boldly sensual on bassist Tim Fahey’s “Until Then.” Meanwhile, her soulful croon adds a brassy casino-concert buoyancy to the horn-driven “Here’s To Life.” The title track, which she co-wrote with Fahey, finds her on a determined walk past the whipping winds of life’s troubles, mirroring New Orleans’ own on-going recovery. In a pleasant surprise, Prima includes a pair of perhaps over-used standards, but turns them inside out. “Moon River,” the anthematic old Johnny Mercer tune, gets a rhythmic, island-themed jolt from Torres and Fahey, co-producers with Prima on Since the Storm. James Davis’ guitar flourishes are just right too, by turns garrulous, impish, sharp and fun. Prima then transforms Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” into a finger-popping jazz romp, complete with a muscular tenor solo by Dave Stambaugh.

Still, after years in Las Vegas, Prima is perhaps to be forgiven if she occasionally slips into something a bit too gaudy. “Star Dust” is sunk by a lightweight smooth-jazz update, turning the Hoagy Carmichael classic into a forgettable parfait. Her closing tune, Bobby Darin’s “The Curtain Falls,” is mannered and showy.

Lena Prima doesn’t stumble like that too often. She’s every bit the savvy pro that her father once was. The connection is made often on Since the Storm, and Prima is clearly most in her element when working the family trade: Fun, horn-driven swing. She’s brash and propulsive on the lesser-known Louis Prima song “Little Boy Blew His Top,” arranging a rumbling wall of reeds over Torres’ snappy drum work. A group including Fahey also adds some appropriately spicy backing vocals. Her own composition “Silly in the Middle” is right out of Louis Prima’s overstuffed playbook of hipster phrases and head-wagging groove, too. Then, as with the successful Mercer and Arlen transformations, Lena Prima adroitly moves away from the expected, and to great effect. “If You Is, Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby),” a Louis Jordan song so perfectly in sync with her dad’s legendary jumping jive, is reborn on Since the Storm as a simmering, nakedly emotional torch song. Acoustic bassist Bob Sachs provides a nimble foundation for an alto sax solo by Jim Hall, then ably moves into a dueling solo turn beside Ellis.

Prima then adds a sequence of inspired jazz phrasing on her dad’s “Sunday Kind of Love,” originally a late-1940s hit for Jo Stafford, even as Stambough gallops along step for step on the tenor sax.

In this way, Prima makes no secret of the debt she owes her father. In fact, she has even produced a biographical stage show titled “That’s My Dad!” Yet, she showed on Since the Storm that she’s not beholden to that memory. This layered, surprisingly complex recording confirmed that while Lena Prima proudly remains her father’s daughter, she also has her own voice.

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