Recalling youth and the first flush of love with Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and mining the subtle humor of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” Wesla Whitfield pages through the great American songbook in her debut at Le Jazz Au Bar.
The San Francisco diva, who’s 57, laces her repertoire with an understated jazz sensibility.
Her voice has a sweet, dry edge that seductively underscores her ballads and adds a tempting tease to her uptempo numbers. “I Wish I Knew,” the tune by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren that found crooner Dick Haymes wooing Betty Grable in “Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe,” is taken at a refreshingly sprightly tempo. Whitfield invests the phrase “Did I mistake this for a real romance?” with a wry questionable twinkle in her eye.
With her adventurous take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t,” Whitfield “tilts the windmills” with flavorful finesse. A highlight of her hour reveals a kinship with the lyrics of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, first as a romanticist propelled by “What Is There to Say” and “Then I’ll Be Tired of You,” followed by the uninhibited zaniness created for Groucho Marx with the encyclopedic “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.” Whitfield reveals a deliciously brittle and cutting sense of humor.
She is accompanied on piano by her husband Mike Greensill, whose arrangements have an intrinsically light swinging base. In his zesty opening solo, Greensill played the Earl Fatha Hines classic “Rosetta.” Boldly expressive, it was clearly a rhythmic mood setter.
A generous portion of Whitfield’s hour is beautifully captured on her new HighNote CD, “September Songs,” which contrasts the outer space awe of “Lost in the Stars” with the wide-eyed snappy ardor of “Jeepers Creepers.” There is a rare savory grace and elegance in a Whitfield performance. Her brief Gotham gig is much too brief, and she’s worthy of a longer stay.