In her third annual appearance at Manhattan’s Oak Room, West Coast diva Paula West once again reveals her unique gifts as a silken and subtle weaver of melody and words. Grace and perfect diction, a clean, full-bodied contralto tone and abundant warmth mark her performance. In a beautifully paced hour of song, she projects a cool sophistication, and her cunning jazz phrasing boasts unforced control.
Her repertoire is essentially romantic: songs that reflect the expectations and heartbreak of love. The singer puts the verse up front. The telling of a story is enveloping and complete.
West unearths a few priceless treasures from Broadway’s past. Saucy in its day, “I Wanna Get Married,” from the ’40s wartime musical “Follow the Girls,” was introduced by Gertrude Niesen as a tobaccoqueen who sang of a desire to sleep in pajama tops. West reveals the song’s sexual playfulness.
Composer Murray Grand blessed cabaret performers with an extraordinary legacy. One of his trunk songs is “You Will Be Loved,” once optioned by David Merrick for a derailed musical about Napoleon and Josephine (suggested for the unlikely pairing of James Cagney and Lena Horne). It turns out to be a richly romantic ballad and an alluring treat on West’s new Hi-Horse CD, “Come What May.”
West recalled that Ethel Waters once dubbed composer Harold Arlen, “the Negro-ist white man I ever saw!” Arlen’s deep-seated sense of blues narrative is revealed in West’s robust performance of “When the Sun Comes Out.” In marked contrast, she adds a warmly serene reading of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics for “I Remember You.”
Desert romanticism arrives in a medley of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunesia.” The tunes display her firm jazz roots and ability to swing. West even turns Cole Porter’s “Can Can” into a sultry and swinging comic lark with such politically incorrect observations as, “If an Afghan in Afghanistan can, baby, you can can-can too!” That the tongue-in-cheek barb works is a credit to West’s interpretive talents.
The Bruce Barth trio provides bold and swinging support and was to perform through the weekend, followed by Bill Charlap (Tuesday-Nov. 17), Mulgrew Miller (Nov. 20-24) and Eric Reed (Nov. 27-Dec. 1).