I have been an avid fan of singer Paula West for decades. Her rich, smooth sound and knowing way with lyrics were always perfectly suited to dusting off even the most moribund of standards and presenting them with an exciting modernity and a revived energy. I have lost track of her over recent years through a combination of pandemic, geography, health (on my part), and the simple passage of time, so it was a delight to be back in her estimable presence. The sound may be rougher and rawer than it once was, but she wears it well and got the job done splendidly in her recent appearance at Smoke on New York’s Upper West Side. The packed house was not only treated to a first-rate jazz vocalist but a supremely talented quartet of musicians consisting of John Chin on piano, Sean Conly on bass, Jerome Jennings on drums, and Ed Cherry on guitar, who supported her at every turn and twist. Witnessing the camaraderie and musical teamwork among them were a joy to behold and made the night even more special.
Walking slowly through a packed house to the stage following a spirited prelude by the band, West planted herself on a stool in the crook of the piano and there she stayed for the duration; no one minded. There was so much energy in her delivery and in her hands that no one could ask for more. She opened on footing that was a bit shaky (like she needed a bit of warming up before completely diving into the material) with “Waters of March” (Antônio Carlos Jobim). Perhaps part of that warm-up process was to set the tune at a tempo that was a bit too fast which prevented the opportunity to fully investigate the lyrics. By her next number, the off-the-wall funny “Cow Cow Boogie” (Don Raye, Benny Carter, Gene De Paul), she was fully in control of her instrument and of the room. Taking the idea of “raised on loco weed” literally, she punctuated the number with a swinging yodel; she just stretched a note here and there as the spirit moved like a horn player bending a note.
There was not a cobweb to be found on her version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” which benefited from her deliberate, bluesy attack that replaced some of the usually light-hearted wordplay with a direct, seductive build of intensity. In her remarkably powerful “I Have Dreamed” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II), one heard the wisdom and passion of years on the road, of years telling stories in song, of a life well-lived, and a heart well-loved. She then sang a song by her favorite songwriter who, it turned out, was Bob Dylan. She gave the audience a “Like a Rolling Stone” unlike any they might have heard. Each musician offered colors and accents that developed into four distinct personalities in service to West’s electrifying vocals. The song was a tour de force.
Revealing that she had been listening to some early Ethel Waters, she went deep and found “a song about euphoria”—Hoagy Carmichael’s “Bread and Gravy,” a little-known gem that should be a classic and, in her hands, might just become one at this late date. “Man Wanted,” which Ethel Waters both wrote and sang, followed, and had all the sexiness and sass that should come with ’30s and ’40s jazz and blues. TheNew Yorker recently presented an article on Paula West’s first CD, Temptation, on its 25th anniversary. From it, the singer chose the title song by Nacio herb Brown and Arthur Freed, in an exquisite, richly detailed arrangement that began with a lengthy and luxurious drum solo by Jennings. Before she left the stage, she brought us back to a gin joint in Harlem about a hundred years ago with “Gimme a Pigfoot” (Wesley Wilson). While in no way an imitation, what Paula West managed was to present her own version of the forever young, completely lived-in, inviting and rough-hewn sound of the great Alberta Hunter. Trust me, that is high praise indeed for this wonderful singer.
Presented at Smoke, 2751 Broadway, NYC, on May 4-7, 2023.
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”