Immersed in Song
Paula West brings intimate connection to Carmel.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Her voice is unlike any other, a moist, cavernous contralto that listeners inhale like oxygen. In the intimate venues where Paula West has built her reputation, she has reached into her audiences so deeply with that voice that they are won, they are hers, they return to see her again and again.
In San Francisco’s Plush Room she presides over weeks of sellout audiences, then in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City she does it again. Perhaps if she recorded more, her fans might be content to travel less, but her three recordings do her no justice.
The Peninsula has an opportunity to be absorbed in West’s voice at the Sunset Center in Carmel where she performs on Saturday, March 10.
“I don’t sing a song that I don’t love,” she says. “I work with great musicians whom I like as people. I’m lucky to have discovered a passion in my life, I love singing this music and don’t want to stop.”
Stopping isn’t likely any decade soon.
Raised in San Diego in a Marine family, West moved to San Francisco in 1988, and she is happy to call it home. “My parents listened to music but it wasn’t really until college that I was first exposed to jazz. I wanted a creative outlet and played clarinet, which really contributed to my breath control, but it was in San Francisco that I began to sing and what really drew me to this music was the lyrics.”
Therein lies the second distinction of this artist. The songs she chooses have great lyrics—intelligent, usually witty, sometimes downright funny, and pretty much always there’s a lot of ‘em.
She has reached into the American songbook and pulled out many obscure and (you might have thought) dated, then tunes and delivers them reborn fresh and relevant in the harsh light of the 21st Century. Picking plums like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Tired” from the songbook, she delivers them in a honeyed swing or a crisp uptempo or languid blues that respects the content but makes it fresh and contemporary, really engaging her audience in both eras simultaneously—it’s very interesting.
The highway West is no memory lane. In the same set as she swings Rogers and Hart’s 1926 hit “Mountain Greenery” Paula might bring a new soulful meaning to “Like a Rolling Stone” or an uptempo something by Hank Williams or Elvis Costello or “If I Only Had a Brain.” The transition always seems to make sense.
“The songbook isn’t a static thing, it’s expanding,” West says. “I look for different moods, romance and humor in a show. I’m interested in a lot of different things—there are many ways to approach music. I wouldn’t decorate my apartment with just one style of furniture.”
West shares her stage with great musicians and gives them a lot of room to play. She learned about this early.
“I was waiting on tables and feeling lucky to get four-hour gigs at a restaurant bar where the music was a background for the conversation,” she says. “When you’re starting out you don’t get better unless you’re doing it, a lot, and only the best musicians had steady gigs.”
San Francisco-based Ken Muir was her piano accompanist, friend and collaborator on musical arrangements for many years. In the Sunset Center performance, West will be working with the ensemble she brings from New York, the George Mesterhazy Quartet.
“I attribute the success of our run at the Algonquin to George,” she says. “He is an amazing soloist, but he has also accompanied Rebecca Parris and Shirley Horn and I’m proud to work with him. It’s really quite a rare and special talent to accompany a jazz singer—you need to have a real rapport.”
West’s rapport with her audience is palpable in a cabaret setting, but she’s also worked her charms at the Monterey Jazz and other festivals and on stages like the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. San Francisco (now-also-Carmel) haberdasher Wilkes Bashford heard her at the Plush Room and promotes her whenever he can. He is presenting her Carmel performance.
West’s vocal quality has deepened over the years while her interests have expanded and her musical partnerships evolved. Even long-time fans will want to know what Paula’s doing now.
PAULA WEST AND THE GEORGE MESTERHAZY QUARTET perform 8pm on Saturday, March 10, at the Sunset Center, Carmel. $57. 620-2048 or sunsetcenter.org.