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The Classic Soul of Paula West

By Deardra Shuler

Paula West was Swinging Uptown: Re-setting the Standards upon the stage of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, her lion’s mane of hair giving a hint of the majesty about to unfold.  Ms. West does not give out a roar but she does put forth a tuneful rhapsody so lush, so rich, so smooth, it becomes a mighty refrain; one so pure, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sarah, Ella, Peggy Lee, Ethel Waters, Rosemary Clooney, and Billie Holiday.  It has been a while since I’ve heard anything so reminiscent of those wonderfully golden throated chanteuses of yesteryear; those 1940s and 1950s divas whose voices are heard mostly on recordings these days.  Yet, it’s as if West channels these glorious prima donnas while giving new life to their melodious voices via her own spectacular instrument in her own unique and indomitable style. 

“I admire many singers.  I am not trying to emulate anyone because I can only be myself,” explained Paula of her music.  “Although I do like a lot of singers like Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Waters, and Ella Fitzgerald, et al.  Hopefully, I have learned something from each.  The lyrics are very important to me.  The story and the words have to interest me especially if I am going to perform them,” claimed West.

“I love the songs of Oscar Brown Jr., because he was such an honest person who had a lot of truth to tell,” remarked Paula, a natural singer, although she has had some voice training.  “I took voice and speech class at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco because that served to help me with diction and to get out certain vowels and consonants successfully through song,” remarked the dynamic songstress. 

“Although I no longer play clarinet, learning to play it at a young age helped me with my breath control,” stated Paula whose Quartet the night of her Columbia University’s Miller Theatre engagement consisted of George Mesterhazy on piano, Ed Cherry on guitar, Vicente Archer on bass and Tony Reedus on drums.

“When I come to New York, I try to work with New York people as often as possible because I think the best people are in New York since its where the most competitive group of musicians congregate.  George Mesterhazy is my regular pianist and arranger and has been with me for about a year.  My guitarist, Ed Cherry, played with Duke Ellington for the last 15 years of his life. Bassist Vicente Archer has played with Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan and a lot of other jazz artists,” stated the velvety voiced jazz singer who initially did not fathom a career as a singer.

Moving from contralto to mid level soprano, the California native manages to take a Cole Porter song and make it inimitably her own.  She can even take a western tune like “Don’t Fence Me In” and mold it into something bluesy. Paula grabs hold of Oscar Brown Jr’s amusing musical ditty “the Snake,” a song about women and the reptiles in their lives.  Like a snake charmer Paula pipes an appealing rendition that gives credence to why it has become one of her signature songs.  She smoothly and adeptly transitions from Brown’s melody to an Antonio Carlos Jobim song. The words ripple from West’s lips, her body sways in unison with the lyrics as she playfully plays with Jobim’s composition “Waters of March.” “A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road, it's the rest of a stump, it's a little alone, it's a sliver of glass, it is life, it's the sun, it is night, it is death, it's a trap, it's a gun.  The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush, the nod of the wood, the song of a thrush, the wood of the wing, a cliff, a fall, a scratch, a lump, it is nothing at all.  It's the wind blowing free. It's the end of a slope.  It's a bean, it's a void, it's a hunch, it's a hope, and the riverbank talks of the Waters of March. It's the end of the strain. It's the joy in your heartcroons Paula making each word distinctive, each thrill resound vibrantly causing audience members to rock in their seats, heads swaying to each word, caught up in the rhythm, moved by the beat of Jobim’s hypnotic calypso.”

Paula kept her Miller Theatre audience bewitched, bothered, and less than bewildered wrapping them in her charisma, spell bounding and enchanting them with her version of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”  Her songbook contained Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” Oscar Brown Jr’s, “The Snake,” and “Hum Drum Blues.”  Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael, et al., made up just a few of the composers and their songs within her musical repertoire.   “It depends on where I am appearing but I like to do a mixture of diverse songs I think people want to hear,” said West who headed back to California after her Miller Theatre appearance but is due to return to New York for a Jazz Standard engagement with her Quartet for 4 nights in May. 

Ms. West is by far one of the best jazz vocalists I have heard in some time.  She is truly remarkable. The talented jazz singer will also be appearing at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room for a month in October.  I recommend to those who have never heard her sing to go see her.  Paula West is a star whose light is on the verge of becoming an ever burning nova.

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