Review by Marty Khan, a 35+ year veteran manager, consultant, non-profit expert, producer and activist.
Two words immediately spring to mind when thinking of the legendary Louis Prima – boisterous and fun. With BLOW, the second album by Louis Prima Jr. and The Witnesses, those two words are the starting point for an explosive journey into the pure expression of out-and-out exultation. Following up on his critically acclaimed Warrior Records debut CD Return of the Wildest, Louis brings the family tradition of unadulterated joyous swing right up to the immediate present with eleven tracks of thunderously unbridled testifying. “With the band’s collective talents and diverse musical tastes, we wind up with a sound unique to this band, while staying true to the boisterous Prima style.” says Louis.
There are elements of past and present New Orleans, 40s small group swing, 50s rock ’n’ roll, Memphis soul, hardcore R&B and various elements of rock and jazz – all passionately placed into the cauldron of Louis Prima Jr.’s personal creativity. Blend in the exceptional skills of eight like-minded musicians, a simpatico co-producer and great songs, and the result is a scintillating musical experience that will make you shout out loud.
Along with Louis’ outstanding trumpet playing, tenor saxophonist Marco Palos, trumpeter Ted Schumacher and trombonist Phil Clevinger create the enormous sound of a big band with the dexterity of an R&B horn section. The rhythm section of Gregg Fox on keyboards, Steve Pandis on upright bass, drummer A.D. Adams and Ryan McKay on guitar keep everything impeccably in place – and with spectacular energy. Vocalist Leslie Spencer lends tremendous backup support to Louis’ spirited vocals, and shines brightly when featured out front. Prima’s arrangements are perfectly crafted for this powerhouse ensemble and ideally developed for each composition. The recording itself – co-produced by Louis and Jim Ervin (who arranged one piece and co-arranged another) – sustains a level of live energy and in-your-face enthusiasm throughout.
There are seven originals by the writing team of Louis, Palos, Adams and McKay; and one by Ervin. “We didn’t set out to simply write music we thought the fans wanted to hear. We wanted to challenge ourselves musically and also challenge the listener. You can’t fool the fans by trying to force the word ‘daddy-o’ into every song. If music does not come honestly from your soul, it will ultimately be short lived.” A few surprises are included – covers of Louis Sr.’s 1944 classic, Robin Hood and Adam Ant’s hit, Goody Two Shoes; and an enthralling “duet” by father and son on That’s My Home using the elder Prima’s vocal and trumpet tracks from his original 1959 recording.
The heart and soul of this music is laid out in no uncertain terms right from the opening track, the title tune Blow. A rollicking, take-no-prisoners instrumental of blistering horn lines, explosive rhythms and a wailing big horn-style tenor sax solo, it grabs you by the shirt-front, slaps you in the face, grips you in a tight bear hug and places a big fat kiss square on the lips. And that’s just the appetizer.
Go, Let’s Go follows in similar fashion; a fervid scorcher rooted in a raucous New Orleans-style – both jazz and R&B – with jumping call-and-response vocals, big trombone glissandi, punchy rhythm and Mingus-like jubilation. A growling organ and funky guitar break leads into Schumacher’s trumpet solo, before drum and hand claps take it into the shout vocal ending – and the hootin’ and hollerin’ of the band in response.
But thunder and lightning is not always the tone. Someday brings Leslie Spencer up front in a vividly Stax/Volt-ish soul ballad. With Memphis style horns a la the Bar-Kays, and her powerful soulful voice in a Carla Thomas by way of Etta James mode stoked by a raunchy tenor that would make Illinois Jacquet smile, this is a radiant, emotionally-charged performance.
Leslie is also featured on I Just Wanna Have Fun, a searing R&B groover powered by thick bursts of horns over driving rhythm section. A roaring tenor turn followed by a raw-etched guitar solo in potent call-and-response with the horns leads out to the vocal over the shouting horn section. Might Be Crazy, a smoldering medium-tempo soulfest by Louis and Leslie is stoked by heavily syncopated, punchy horn lines and a Chicago blues style bass line.
A slightly more laid-back vibe is set on New Orleans, a bouncy cooker that showcases Louis’ stirring and compelling voice over a shouting chorus and Fats Domino-esque honky-tonk piano. A soul- drenched tenor solo and Louis’ impassioned vocal goes out over celebratory horns and chorus in a wild party – that sounds like it comes to a halt when the cops showed up because everybody was just having too damned much fun. There’s another easy groove on the closing track, Jim Ervin’s Those Million Things, a nicely swinging piece that showcases Louis’ infectious vocal stylings built over a delicious pastiche of horns and Ervin’s subtle string arrangements.
Fame and Glory is in the rip-roaring, foot-stomping style that permeates so much of this wonderful album. A driving romp in hardcore R&B style with bellowing horns, hollering chorus and throbbing rhythm, it lands somewhere in the middle of The JBs, P- Funk and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues. Another full-throttle smoker in pure jump style is Louis’ cover of Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, with barking Night Train horns and the rhythm section surging like a diesel. Brief explosive solos by snarling tenor and howling trombone launch a great horn break, building the tension higher and higher under Louis’ terrific scorching vocal.
Jump blues is also on tap for Robin Hood, a hit for Louis Sr. in 1944. Prima’s striking vocal cooks over the smoking horns that power this vehicle, with their lower tones chugging in locomotive beat. It’s a special treat to hear that fabulously singular Prima voice just as it was captured on his original 1959 version of That’s My Home, but ensconced here in a marvelous new Prima Jr./Ervin arrangement. The same can be said for his trumpet solo, so full, round and subtly crafted. The trumpet and vocal duet of father and son is not just moving, it’s an absolutely joyous delight – and that holds true for this remarkable and extraordinary album.
To borrow a phrase from the liner notes “A new legend is being born and it will BLOW you away.” ~Marty Kahn