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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Jazz Favorite Paula West
Returns to the Empire Plush Room

Also see Richard's review of Monster

Paula WestSan Francisco favorite jazz artist Paula West has returned to the Empire Plush Room of the York Hotel on Sutter Street, along with the virtuosic Eric Reed Trio, for a six week gig. This marks the third time this thrilling artist has given the Empire Plush room jazz enthusiasts a swinging show.

Paula West has captured the hearts of critics and audiences from coast to coast. Stephen Holden of the New York Times said, “The harder Ms. West swings, the more her tough, sophisticated sense of humor bursts out ... a jazz singer who wastes no time on frills.” She is the winner of the 2005 Nightlife Award for Outstanding Female Jazz Vocalist and she has received the coveted MAC Night Light Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist in 2004.

On opening night, Ms. West apologized to her fans for the effects of a cold in the throat area, and thoughout the 80-minute show, she sipped a cup of honey and water. The amazing jazz pianist Eric Reed leads the trio, with Jeff Chambers on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums, on long and cool jazz renditions.

Paula West pays tribute to the great Ethel Waters with two songs from MGM’s Cabin in the Sky. She opens the show with Vernon Duke/John Latouche/Ted Fetter’s “Taking a Chance on Love,” and later in the program sings “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” set off by that her sophisticated smoky voice.

Paula sings songs from Broadway like Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot,” Harold Arlen/Leo Robin’s “Hooray for Love” and several from all-black Broadway shows, one being the soulful “Black and Blue” by Andy Razaf. Paula tells an amazing story about this song. The notorious gangster Dutch Schulz was backing the production and he approached Andy Razaf to write a song on what it meant to be black. Andy said he could not write such a song to which Dutch replied “If you don’t write this type of song, you won’t be writing songs any longer.” Needless to say “Black and Blue” was written. Paula West spins out this song with wondrously soft lines and emotional, heartfelt touches.

Bert Williams and Alex Rogers' 100-year-old song, “Nobody,” which made Williams the first African-American to appear in a Ziegfeld review, is also present. Paula also gives some sidelights about Bert and how the all-white cast told Flo they would not appear on stage with a black man. Flo replied, “I will fire the whole lot of you and just keep the black man.” Of course, the white cast did appear and Bert Williams went on to be a famous comedian on Broadway. Paula segues from this to the Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf's “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More.”

Ms. West sings one of my favorite new songs, “Belleville Rendez-Vous,” from the fantastic French-Canadian film, Les Triplettes de Belleville. She is brilliant with the intricate words and melody of the song, written for the film by Benoît Charest and Sylvain Chomet. She goes a different route with Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with impeccable phrasing as the words comes tumbling out with amazing speed, backed by the extraordinary drummer Joe Farnsworth who keeps the beat going. The diva does a beautiful arrangement of the old Benny Goodman classic, “Perfidia,” written by Alberto Dominguez, and the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn classic, “I’m Checkin Out Goom-Bye.”

At the performance we saw, Paula West was given a standing ovation, and she returned with the trio to knock the socks off the audience with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s tongue-twisting “Waters of March.” She probably would have done another, but her cold was getting to her.

Enough cannot be said of Eric Reed, who is a master of the keyboard. Even his opening “overture” before Paula appears is full of jazz riffs that are amazing. In several of the songs, he takes over with his artist's hands to bring cool jazz to the fans.

Paula West will be appearing at the Empire Plush Room of the York Hotel, 940 Sutter Street, San Francisco through March 20 (Bruce Barth and Bill Charlap will replace Eric Reed some performances until the last week). For reservations, call 415-885-2800 or visit www.empireplushroom.com.

From April 5 through April 23, Sharon McKnight returns with Betty, Betty and Bette, a tribute to stars Hutton, Grable and Davis.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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