There's a short list of outlets for female crooner aficionados these days. Sure, there are winning classic vocals from the likes of Madeleine Peyroux or Jane Monheit. But I've yet to witness the poignancy of Billie Holiday, the sass of Eartha Kitt, the sultriness of Julie London, or the sheer perfection of Ella Fitzgerald, in any current-day singer.
Though Paula West may not be a legend, she has become a leading international jazz vocalist and local treasure. Watching her perform every year for the past decade, I can vouch: she keeps getting better. She hasn't recorded an album since 2002 and those she does have fail to fully capture the essence of live performance. Live, her impeccable breath control and diction shine, as does her soulful longing and contrasting wry humor.
What truly wows a jazz lover is West's song selection. Each year she plays a multi-week run at Hotel Nikko's Rrazz Room (how I miss her former setting, the now-shuttered Plush Room). West and composer/arranger, George Mesterhazy, convert songs to jazz in genres as wide-ranging as country or rock. Mesterhazy also leads West's backing quartet (Mesterhazy on piano, Ed Cherry on guitar, Barak Mori on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums). It's not unusual to hear her sing the funky "Iko Iko" alongside the Scottish ballad "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond." Her love for Bob Dylan surfaces yearly in Dylan tunes arranged with jazz spirit -- this year, it's "Shelter from the Storm."
This year, West keeps things upbeat with a bouncy rendition of Irving Berlin's "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," "Come Runnin'" (made famous by Lena Horne), and the ever-delightful "At Long Last Love," by Cole Porter, another songwriter she commonly performs. Hoagy Carmichael could never dream of his "Baltimore Oriole" being as sexy as it is with Mesterhazy's sultry arrangement and Jerome Jennings' exuberantly sensual drums. Easy listening rarely sounds as good as it does in West's version of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman."
West thanked us for coming out instead of staying home to watch reality TV, launching into what she dubs the "Reality Show Trilogy," evoking laughter with Pearl Bailey's "Tired": "Washin' and a-tubbin'/ Cleanin' and a-scrubbin'/ Sure leaves my glamour with a scar...Tired of the tears I shed/ Tired of livin' in the red/ Tired of my same old bed...'Cause I'm tired, yes I'm tired of you."
The yearning is palpable in her gorgeous delivery of Irving Berlin's "Supper Time," which Ethel Waters sang in the film As Thousands Cheer. West's rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets" is equally emotional, even chilling. West starts off in a steady, pleasing pace, mesmerizing as her show progresses with her impressive memorization of complex verse and controlled belting.
Sipping Rrazz Room's mediocre, over-priced drinks becomes less obnoxious when you're enveloped by West's clear, dusky vocals and Mesterhazy's skillful quartet. Her current run lasts until March 13, so there's still time for a little "Baltimore Oriole."
Through March 13, $35-45
The Rrazz Room
222 Mason Street