"They just don't write songs like that anymore."
That's what my dad used to say whenever Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald came on the car radio singing an old Cole Porter or George Gershwin tune. Sigh. Those were the days.
But the good news is, the finely crafted compositions of Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Rodgers & Hart are still being sung by the likes of Wesla Whitfield and Sherri Roberts.
Whitfield, a 20-year veteran of the San Francisco nightlife scene, and Roberts, a relative newcomer who recorded her first album two years ago, are MVPs in the care and feeding of the American popular song.
Both have brand new CDs in release and important gigs in the immediate offing — Whitfield opening a six-week run in the Plush Room on Tuesday, Nov. 17, and Roberts celebrating the release of her Dreamsville at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, Friday, Nov. 13, and Yoshi's in Oakland, on Monday, Nov. 16.
Whitfield and Roberts share a common affection for the songs of the "they don't write anymore" sort. On her appropriately titled new High Standards (HighNote Records), Whitfield focuses her gorgeous alto on masterpieces by Cole Porter (including "From This Moment On," "Just One Of Those Things," and "Let's Do It") within a repertoire that swings lightly from standards ("Exactly Like You," "How High the Moon," "My Favorite Things") to more obscure or neglected gems ("Don't Take Your Love From Me"). With perfect intonation ranging from a warm natural alto into sky-blue soprano purity, an ever-so-slight grain in her vocal timbre, and a beguiling way of stretching lyrics over the limber instrumental accompaniment of husband/arranger Mike Greensill on piano, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, Whitfield makes every word ring true. And new.
On Dreamsville (Brownstone Recordings), Roberts likewise takes off from the standard touchstones of Porter ("Dream Dancing"), Rodgers & Hart ("It Never Entered My Mind," "With A Song In My Heart"), and Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer ("How Little We Know"). But her elegant flights, accompanied by pianist Mark Soskin, bassist Harvie Swartz, drummer Danny Gottlieb, saxophonist Chris Potter, and others, swoop and soar a little more through the "jazz" stratosphere, sometimes by virtue of material (Gigi Gryce and Jon Hendricks' "Social Call"), sometimes by taking liberties with melody and wordless vocalese.
And that brings up an irritating differentiation that has arisen since the golden age of the popular American songbook (and a richer era of radio), when everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Peggy Lee could be heard over the same airwaves. "Just for the hell of it, let's spend the next few minutes NOT debating whether Wesla Whitfield belongs in the world of jazz or the demimonde of cabaret," writes jazz author Neil Tesser in the first sentence his liner notes to High Standards. Good idea.
Maybe a line can be drawn between the late jazz giants Betty Carter and Carmen McRae, on the one hand, and cabaret icons Blossom Dearie and Julie Wilson, on the other. And one might distinguish between jazz and cabaret when it comes to venues and audiences, as well. But in terms of the actual music, as the popularity of Diana Krall and the musical success of the new Whitfield and Roberts CDs prove, the distinction eventually breaks down.
Still, Whitfield, who became bi-coastal when she triumphed in New York City's Algonquin Hotel in 1993, is commonly categorized as a cabaret performer. Hence her extended engagement at the Plush Room, where she'll present her semi-autobiographical "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" show that won critical plaudits during its run at the Kaufman Theater in New York. Meanwhile, Roberts will be heard in the jazz-identified confines of Kuumbwa and Yoshi's.
One wonders where Jeri Southern would be booked were she performing in 1998. Southern sang a classic 1954 version of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which Whitfield reprises on High Standards. She also gave a private tutorial to Roberts when the latter was starting out. "Her whole approach to teaching was about the lyric," Roberts is quoted in the liner notes to Dreamsville, "how to shape each line so that the words came across as poignantly as possible."
Call it jazz or cabaret; what really matters is the way the singer becomes song, and the song the singer. The days may be gone when a father could punch up a station on the car radio and challenge his son to identify Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, or Dinah Washington and name the tunes they were singing. But thanks to the likes of Wesla Whitfield, Sherri Roberts, and others, the songs endure.
Derk Richardson, SFGate.com
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