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Paula West at the Oak Room

This jazz singer's eclectic new show -- ranging from Gershwin to Dylan -- is her best New York set yet! logo
Paula West
San Francisco-based jazz singer Paula West comes to the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room every year with a new wrinkle - except it's not on her face. The ever-youthful West did not disappoint this year, arriving with a new four-piece band, led by George Mesterhazy on piano, and several exceedingly bold jazz arrangements of songs one would not readily think of as soulful swingin' tunes. Indeed, she puts on the best performance of her New York career.

The once serious and sometime ponderous West has evolved over the past few years into a fully developed and decidedly warmer entertainer. Adventurous and playful, she experiments with the jazz idiom by melding it with other musical forms. It isn't what you would call jazz fusion; rather it's more like jazz funhouse. Nowhere is that more evident in her singing of the Celtic classic "Loch Lomond" and the Irish "Danny Boy" with a jazz spin. Not content to leave it at that, she also tackled country king Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk" and the rock 'n' roll poetry of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," giving these numbers a sprinkling of jazz dust.

West didn't hit the bull's-eye with all of these numbers, but her willingness to stretch and try new things is not only laudable, it's entertaining to watch. And when she does hit a bull's-eye -- for instance, when she's singing "It Ain't Necessarily So" she puts that jazz arrow right in the center of the target.

As is often the case with jazz, the songs that lend themselves best to bending without breaking are the standards from the Great American Songbook. With that thought in mind, the most stunning of West's many highlights is her pulsating rendition of the Romberg/Hammerstein classic "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise." (from New Moon), which was buoyed by a spectacular arrangement played by the band. Her show is anchored by powerhouse songs like "Why Was I Born?", leavened with light tunes like "Man Wanted", and uplifted by classic numbers like "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

This wide variety of music is experienced through West's smooth and creamy jazz tones. She neither belts nor riffs; her gift is the richness of her voice rather than its dexterity. And that's more than enough. Plus, her patter is right on the money. If it isn't flashy or funny, it is certainly brief, to the point, and comfortably conversational. But you don't come to the Oak Room to hear Paula West talk. She's all about the music.

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