A Week of Great Vocalists – Lena Prima, Denise Donatelli and Jeffery Osborne!
Jonathan Widran – Jazzologist
What festivals and shows are you looking forward to?
I’m sure every jazz fan loves their city or region for the multiple opportunities they offer to hear an ongoing slate of great music from many sources. But a handful of performances this last week made me especially glad to live in Southern California, where I saw a great festival in Orange County and shows by two great female vocalists who had previously been under my radar at the popular L.A. hotspots, Vitello’s and Vibrato (love those V’s!).
For any talented child of a legendary music figure, I would imagine the biggest challenge would be paying homage to the family legacy while carving out a unique and singular niche that establishes that artist’s legitimacy. I feel privileged to have been hired recently to write a bio on Lena Prima, the daughter of “King of Swing” Louis Prima, and really embraced the material on her CD Since the Storm and her colorful vocals and arrangements. But nothing prepared me for the magic and infectious energy she generated onstage at Vitello’s last night. I think the song and arrangement that epitomizes the magic Lena brings to her show is “Here’s To Life,” which is best known as a tender ballad popularized by Shirley Horn. Lena’s version is full of zest and pop and inspired me to pay closer attention to the inspirational lyrics than I ever had before. Her 90 minute set included colorful arrangements of old standbys like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Over The Rainbow” and “Moon River” (done with more swing and pep than most artists dare!), as well as fun, spirited offbeat tunes like “Is You Or Ain’t You My Baby,” “Silly In The Middle” and a high energy singalong version of “I Want You To Be My Baby.”
Even if Lena did not have a famous last name, there’s no doubt her strong jazz vocal chops could make her a star – but all that natural presence, charm and charisma comes with a history she is not shy about sharing. To everyone’s delight, she channeled her dad’s “old black magic” and did a sweep of Italian songs that some people sang along to, plus wild renditions of songs Louis popularized like “Just A Gigolo.” Then in equal homage, she ventured down to New Orleans (NOLA, baby!), where he conjured up the great Irma Thomas, got some Saints to go marching in and jammed on the irrepressible “Jump Jive An’ Wail.” One of my favorites live and on disc is the clever “Little Boy Blew His Top.” This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening created by an artist who brilliantly combines subtle intimacies with crowd pleasing exciting delights.