Extract from O Magazine, October 2005
Wesla Whitfield's voice can do virtually anything. Her body can't, and that doesn't matter a damn to audiences.
Author Rosemary Mahoney writes about how one woman's gorgeous, sophisticated, suggestive, and incomparable style leaves audiences happily mesmerized.
I'm sitting one winter night with a friend in the nightclub Le Jazz Au Bar in New York, waiting for the singer Wesla Whitfield to appear. The houselights are low and the mostly middle-aged audience, seated at small tables, are eating dinner, chatting happily, sipping drinks. The stage lights go up and the pianist and the bassist toss out an up-tempo prelude. In a moment Wesla Whitfield wheels herself onstage in an aerodynamically streamlined wheelchair.
You will suspect me of exaggerating when I say that within 50 seconds of listening I have clean forgotten the wheelchair. I am not, however, exaggerating. Whitfield's voice bathes the room with an intimacy powerful enough to render the wheelchair invisible. She sings, "I've had happiness, but it ended one day…," and in the course of this one song she manages to sound as languorous as Peggy Lee, as clear and wide-eyed as Judy Garland, as hazy and rasping as Janis Joplin after a three-day bender—yet though it alludes to past greats, Whitfield's style is entirely her own.
At 57 Whitfield is petite and as pretty as a schoolgirl—a sort of teenage Clara Bow. She is witty and self-deprecating, modest and philosophical. When I note that she has been described by some critics as the best jazz singer in America, she draws herself up, raises a hand at me in protest, and says with a laugh, "Oh, that's bull----! And anyway, I'm not a jazz singer. I'm a classical singer trying desperately to move as quickly away from that as I can…but it's going to take me the rest of my life."
Raised in central California in the town of Santa Maria, Whitfield began performing in public at age 18, when she took a job as a singing waitress at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor. "The light dawned," she says of that experience, "and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Not the waitress part, of course, but singing for people. That was where I wanted to be." After studying classical music in college (not out of a particular love of the genre but because it was the only music allowed on the curriculum), she moved to San Francisco and went on to sing with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, a job she eventually abandoned because, she says, "Opera is all about the voice and the singer, not the song or the story, and that bored me."
Of her show she says, "You have to realize that I'm up there doing my own personal therapy every night—I get to take the most quiet inner thoughts and express them every night. I'm doing that for myself but also for everybody in the audience, because we all feel that way…. You get these great lyrics, this great melody, and it's like an injection directly into your heart by way of your brain. What better way to connect?"
Walking home from a rehearsal session in San Francisco at the age of 29, she was caught in the midst of a random shooting that left her paralyzed from the waist down. I ask how she dealt with the realization that she'd never walk again, and she confesses that initially she didn't, that after a year of depression and deep despair she made a serious attempt to end her own life. "But the most wonderful thing happened next," she says. "They put me in what I refer to as the Ha-Ha Hotel. For five weeks I was locked up in a 15-bed ward surrounded by people who were just really nuts! The counselors there slowly got me to realize that trying to kill myself was nuts, and eventually I saw that my job was to figure out how to live my life in a new way."
Whitfield says she came to understand that the only thing she had lost in this misfortunate event was the ability to walk, that in fact she was still possessed of her most valuable asset—her mind. "Everything important is in here," she says, pointing to her head. "The only real disability in life is losing your mind." When I ask wasn't she angry about what she had lost, she says, "I knew early on that anger would only make things harder for me." She admits to being frustrated occasionally, "like when everybody's dancing, because I love to dance. But when that happens I just remove myself so I can focus instead on what I can do."
Wesla Whitfield – Singing Her DuesAs far as Wesla Whitfield is concerned people can call her a jazz, pop or cabaret singer, just as long as she keeps getting calls for gigs. “I only want to be allowed to continue to sing the music that I love.” Whitfield says.
Since she began paying dues as a singer in 1968 in San Francisco, Whitfield has displayed remarkable versatility. She’s sung opera, musical theater (she recently played Bloody Mary in “South Pacific), cabaret, jazz and once was a singing cocktail waitress, which she describes with humor as “the lowest form of entertainment there is.”
Though Whitfield is not a star, she has earned the respect and admiration of enough people in the industry and a loyal enough fan following that her biggest wish continues to come true. Now 58, Whitfield works and records regularly. That’s enough for the San Francisco Bay Area resident. “Who wants to be mobbed every time she goes to the grocery store?” she says.
Whitfield has played large concert halls, cabarets and jazz clubs, including New York’s Carnegie Hall and Oak Room, but she’s just as excited about working a little room with a capacity of about 50 in Meadville, PA.
In the Bay Area, she’s worked just about every room available, “Until they all closed,” she says. But her “home” room has been San Francisco’s York Hotel Plush Room, where last December she celebrated her 25th anniversary.
“I’m happiest when I’m home,” she says.
What’s impressive is that she’s managed to build her career while working from a wheelchair. In 1977 she was the victim of a seemingly random street shooting that left her paralyzed from the waist down. “A couple of kids had a gun. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says. “It’s been so long that it’s long past the point of where it has any meaning. I preferred sitting down to sing anyway. It helps me concentrate.”
Whitfield had an interesting “handicapped” experience recently. “I played Le Jazz Au Bar right after Shirley Horn, [who’s also in a wheelchair],”she says. “They built a ramp for her and simply left it up for me. It may have been the first time in the history of jazz that two disabled people have been booked back-to-back.”
Helping her along he way has been her husband, Michael Greensill, who also happens to be her pianist. She and Greensill have been a team for about 23 years, the last 18 as spouses. Whitfield says they rarely have musical disagreements, but when they do it usually has to do with tempo. “More likely, I’ll want it faster than Michael,” Whitfield says.
Whitfield’s discography is equal or even superior to many more famous vocalists, both in quantity and quality. In June, she recorded her 17th album since 1980. She’s excited that for this album – on HighNote – she was able to use French horns.
Her recordings generally reflect the composers and lyricists from the Great American Songbook. Whitfield has devoted entire albums to the music of Jimmy McHugh, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and others. Hart is her favorite.
Born in rural California, Whitfield was the youngest of three girls, who formed their version of the Andrew Sisters when Whitfield was but 5. Whitfield was even ore precocious. “I knew at two-and-a-half that I was going to be a singer. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents watching TV, and I remember when a singer named Molly Bee opened her mouth and I said, “That’s what I’m going to do.”
Whitfield lists some of the usual suspects as her influences: Sarah Vaughan, Carman McRae, Anita O’Day.” And I don’t sound anything like any of them,” she says. And despite this jazz influence, Whitfield does not consider herself a jazz singer.
“I don’t think I’m a jazz singer so much as an interpreter of lyrics, which in jazz is secondary, although jazz singers do care about lyrics,” she says. “But with them, it’s more about exploring a song melodically and harmonically, rather than dealing with the story of a song.”
- Bob Protzman
January 14, 2005You May Say I'm a Dreamer but I Can Imagine, Can't I?
The San Francisco pop-jazz singer Wesla Whitfield dryly observes at the start of her latest cabaret show, "In My Life," that the New Year has "very little to recommend it."So how does she advise those of us who share her dread to face the future? A retreat into fantasy is called for, she declares, her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. "Reality is highly overrated."
What follows is a show at Le Jazz au Bar in which Ms. Whitfield combines ruthless insight, intense emotion and highly evolved jazz phrasing into a musical evening that goes beyond mere entertainment to flirt with profundity. Ms. Whitfield has always shown signs that she glimpsed more than she let on about the popular standards she chose. But until recently, they have been flickers of light at the fringes of performances that often seemed complacent.
But since last I saw her, Ms. Whitfield has undergone a personal revolution. Her voice, at once tart and poignant, has acquired broader, subtler shadings, and she now reads a song like a personal short story in an artfully managed stream of rushes and hesitations, with half-spoken passages giving way to dreamy lyrical afterthoughts. Her style, for all its originality, is anything but eccentric. Her interpretations are informed by a keen critical intelligence that views songs as tough-minded dialogues between cynicism and romantic faith. At the same time, Ms. Whitfield's husband and longtime musical partner, Mike Greensill, cushions her sharper edges with his gently contemplative pianism. (John Wiitala plays bass.)
One conceptual coup is the insertion of a pertinent excerpt from John Lennon's "Imagine" into Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "Pure Imagination." Another is a sequence of three songs, "We're in the Money," "Money" (from the movie "Cabaret") and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," offered as a critique of our gilded age. "Some Other Time," from "On the Town," is carried into a metaphysical dimension that suggests a reunion in the afterlife. And "Bali Ha'i," floating on a light Latin pulse, becomes a song of witchy seduction. In the realm of cabaret, you can't get much deeper and (in keeping with the show's theme) more imaginative.
- Stephen Holden
Extract from People Magazine, June 1997"The only singers I consciously remember are
Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin."
Radio and television. Baby boomer, Wesla Whitfield's musical memories have their basis on what she saw and heard over the airwaves, like the Perry Como show and, she freely admits, Lawrence Welk. She might not recall who was singing those songs, but she liked the music. On the radio, she remembers Rosie and Dino, whose keen sense of swing must have remained with her because Wesla today performs with a similar breezy spirit.
She was born north of Los Angeles, in the town of Santa Maria. Because her parents were struggling to raise two older daughters, Wesla lived with her grandparents until she was four, and then returned to her parents. She insists that she knew from the age of two, when she saw Molly Bee perform on the Red Owen Television Show, that when she grew up, she too wanted to be a singer .
Wesla's parents owned a piano, and they supported her interest and obvious talent in music. They managed to provide piano lessons and later, voice lessons. They sent her to study classical music in college, and she went on to sing in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera. During this time, she married and divorced.
But that tuneful popular music from her childhood must have been lingering in her mind, because Wesla kept slipping out to sing in piano bars and finally, in the mid '70's, she quit the opera chorus to become a singing cocktail waitress on the Baywind Boat / Restaurant.
Obviously, Wesla was finding that classical music did not suit her as well as the popular American songbook. She said she was moving from the Julie Andrews School to the Carmen McRae Apprenticeship Program. She began working in small cabaret clubs around the San Francisco area, gaining critical notice, and then one April evening in 1977, her life took yet another decisive turn. Walking home from a rehearsal session, Wesla was struck down on the street in an apparent random shooting. Although she underwent extensive therapy, she was unable to walk again.
But she was still able to sing, and after less than three months, Wesla was back singing in a club. Her physical disability is something she is impatient speaking about.
"There's only one thing I can't do. I can't walk." Wesla concentrated on trying to make a living singing, but before she could do so, she had to rely on day jobs for many years, including paralegal work and computer programming.
"This wonderful singer thrills me when I hear her." - Tony Bennett
- San Francisco Chronicle 2009
- Backstage 2009
- New York Times 2005
- Orange County Register 2003
- Washington Post 2004
- Boston Globe 2002
- Variety 2004
- St Louis Post-Dispatch 2001
- Oakland Tribune 2004
- Chicago Sun Times 1997
- San Francisco Chronicle 2003
- The Los Angeles Times
- Contra Costa Times 2003
This Voice Needs No Adornment
by David Wiegand,
San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Among the evils "American Idol" has unleashed on the world is the notion that to sing a song, one must perform vocal gymnastics in such a mannered frenzy that the actual song becomes all but unrecognizable, not to mention eviscerated of all meaning, soul and heart.
Wesla Whitfield doesn't do that. She doesn't have to. She doesn't need to resort to vocal tricks because she has a real voice. What's more, as she demonstrates repeatedly in her sublime 15-song program at the Nikko Hotel's Rrazz Room through June 7, she can virtually worship the heart and soul of any song and make us want to be part of the congregation.
What a wonder is Wesla, and never so much as when she's working with that big talented lug she married, the eloquent pianist/arranger Mike Greensill. Three years ago, the city actually allowed these icons to escape to Wine Country, but as Wesla made clear on Thursday night even without singing that song, she left her heart in San Francisco and is grateful for the chance to catch up with it again for a while. So are we.
Her set, which she dubbed "As Time Goes By," ran the gamut from that song itself, to other standards such as "You Make Me Feel So Young," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "You've Got Possibilities," to the slyly suggestive "A Guy What Takes His Time" ("I have no idea what that song means," she deadpanned), to Lennon/McCartney's "In My Life" and the comic "A Little Tin Box" from the old musical "Fiorello."
Every song was a standout, of course, but if you can force yourself to stand outside the Whitfield magic for a bit, consider how she works, how she delivers a song. First, there is the phrasing, perhaps, as Mabel Mercer taught us, the secret to great singing. Whitfield's is precise - not that it's the same from song to song, but, in fact, correct and careful for each song.
And then there is the voice itself. It is, in the best ways, an unadorned instrument. There may be a slight vibrato here and there, but only for the most subtle emphasis at a key moment in a musical phrase. The rest of the time, it's clear, bell-like, unwavering.
Finally, there is her innate understanding that good singing is also good storytelling. Each song is a little novel for Whitfield, something rich with meaning and emotion, and her job -which she fulfills effortlessly time and time again in her 90-minute set - is to bring us in to the experience of the song.
Most singers would probably give in to the temptation to mess around with a standard, thinking, somehow, that you have to do that to make it seem "new." But when Whitfield sings "As Time Goes By," for example, she doesn't try to interpolate the notes from the outside, but rather by honoring the song as it was written, finds new meaning within its structure. The understated way she delivers the line "that no one can deny," for example, is absolutely thrilling because somehow, though we've heard that lyric over and over again, all of a sudden, it's this hushed surprise.
Greensill is every bit her partner on stage, of course. His arrangements mirror his wife's artistic respect for the material while at the same time making the familiar seem somehow new again. He and Whitfield are ably supported by drummer Vince Lateano and the always terrific John Wiitala on standup bass.
January 06, 2009
by David Finkle
There's any number of people who'll tell you that at the moment there's no better purveyor of standards in America than Wesla Whitfield. I'm one of them. When it comes to Whitfield , I'm not a reviewer; I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan. My conviction about her superiority was anything but shaken after she'd finished a few days ago the first show of a four-performance weekend at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel — with hubby Mike Greensill at the piano, of course.
It's not just the quality of the voice — the shimmering sound she has that gives every song she sings the vital quickness of life. It's not just that she considers every word of a lyric and locates in each phrase the emotion, the humor, the whatever it is that the wordsmiths put there. It's a combination of the voice and the consideration and, of equal importance, her sunny disposition, which this outing she established immediately in her opener, "My Shining Hour" -Harold Arlen). When she sang about what was indeed to be a shining hour, she was the very embodiment of Mercer's "calm and happy and bright."
Whitfield progressed to the Gershwin brothers' "Fascinatin' Rhythm," during which she and Greensill explored several fascinatin' rhythms. Her chat was always happy and bright, although she didn't always limit it to calm. She certainly didn't when she included "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" (E.Y. Harburg-Arlen) and said that these days patrons often think she's being political by chanting it. She is, she confides.
By the time Whitfield reached the jubilant Wizard of Oz classic, she'd already pulled a few neat tricks from her sleeve. Joking about the recession, she glided into a medley of "We're in the Money" (Al Dubin-Harry Warren), "Money Makes the World Go Around" (Fred Ebb-John Kander), and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Harburg-Jay Gorney). As clever a trick and a bit subtler were her back-to-back versions of "Bali Ha'i" and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." Needless to say, they're both by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers and couldn't be a better pairing to show what the R&H range could be.
Whitfield cherishes words to such an extent that she introduced the Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers "Isn't It Romantic?" by saying it includes a thought she finds exceedingly poetic. It turns out not to be the phrase "sweet symbols in the moonlight," which she apparently considers a little pretentious, but the sentence "Isn't it romantic merely to be young on such a night as this?" After making a spellbinder of the tune, she said she's decided what Hart meant by the thought was that romance confers youth on couples no matter their age.
Wheelchair-bound, Whitfield has taken to steering herself into the room and up to the riser, where Greensill swiftly and deftly pulls her up the few inches. She leaves by reversing the action and somehow manages to convey throughout that she's not confined by the chair; she occupies it as an 18th-century lady might occupy a sedan or a 20th-century driver would operate a revved Indianapolis 500 race car. There's no need to say more power to her, because she makes it clear she's already as powerful as she needs or wants to be. She couldn't be righter.
You May Say I'm a Dreamer but I Can Imagine, Can't I ?
by Stephen Holden
New York Times
January 14, 2005
The San Francisco pop-jazz singer Wesla Whitfield dryly observes at the start of her latest cabaret show, "In My Life," that the New Year has "very little to recommend it." So how does she advise those of us who share her dread to face the future? A retreat into fantasy is called for, she declares, her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. "Reality is highly overrated."
What follows is a show at Le Jazz au Bar in which Ms.Whitfield combines ruthless insight, intense emotion and highly evolved jazz phrasing into a musical evening that goes beyond mere entertainment to flirt with profundity. Ms. Whitfield has always shown signs that she glimpsed more than she let on about the popular standards she chose. But until recently, they have been flickers of light at the fringes of performances that often seemed complacent.
But since last I saw her, Ms. Whitfield has undergone a personal revolution. Her voice, at once tart and poignant, has acquired broader, subtler shadings, and she now reads a song like a personal short story in an artfully managed stream of rushes and hesitations, with half-spoken passages giving way to dreamy lyrical afterthoughts.
Her style, for all its originality, is anything but eccentric. Her interpretations are informed by a keen critical intelligence that views songs as tough-minded dialogues between cynicism and romantic faith. At the same time, Ms. Whitfield's husband and longtime musical partner, Mike Greensill, cushions her sharper edges with his gently contemplative pianism. (John Wiitala plays bass.)
One conceptual coup is the insertion of a pertinent excerpt from John Lennon's "Imagine" into Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "Pure Imagination." Another is a sequence of three songs, "We're in the Money," "Money" (from the movie "Cabaret") and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," offered as a critique of our gilded age.
"Some Other Time," from "On the Town," is carried into a metaphysical dimension that suggests a reunion in the afterlife. And "Bali Ha'i," floating on a light Latin pulse, becomes a song of witchy seduction.
In the realm of cabaret, you can't get much deeper and (in keeping with the show's theme) more imaginative.
Wesla Whitfield, who sings standards better than anybody, set up shop at
Danny's Skylight Room in NY for a three-night stand.
Among other things, she's my favorite bait-and-switch artist. Just when her kewpie smile and lightly
mocking patter leave you wondering whether she takes anything seriously, she comes zooming in
under the radar with a payload of deeply felt emotion, singing songs like "This Time the
Dream's on Me" and "Lost in the Stars" in a silvery drypoint voice that makes you shiver.
May 25, 2004
by Robert L. Daniels
Recalling youth and the first flush of love with Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" and mining the subtle humor of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," Wesla Whitfield pages through the great American songbook in her debut at Le Jazz Au Bar.
The San Francisco diva, who's 57, laces her repertoire with an understated jazz sensibility. Her voice has a sweet, dry edge that seductively underscores her ballads and adds a tempting tease to her uptempo numbers. "I Wish I Knew," the tune by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren that found crooner Dick Haymes wooing Betty Grable in "Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe," is taken at a refreshingly sprightly tempo. Whitfield invests the phrase "Did I mistake this for a real romance?" with a wry questionable twinkle in her eye.
With her adventurous take on Stephen Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't," Whitfield "tilts the windmills" with flavorful finesse. A highlight of her hour reveals a kinship with the lyrics of E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, first as a romanticist propelled by "What Is There to Say" and "Then I'll Be Tired of You," followed by the uninhibited zaniness created for Groucho Marx with the encyclopedic "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady." Whitfield reveals a deliciously brittle and cutting sense of humor.
She is accompanied on piano by her husband Mike Greensill, whose arrangements have an intrinsically light swinging base. In his zesty opening solo, Greensill played the Earl Fatha Hines classic "Rosetta." Boldly expressive, it was clearly a rhythmic mood setter.
A generous portion of Whitfield's hour is beautifully captured on her new HighNote CD, "September Songs," which contrasts the outer space awe of "Lost in the Stars" with the wide-eyed snappy ardor of "Jeepers Creepers." There is a rare savory grace and elegance in a Whitfield performance. Her brief Gotham gig is much too brief, and she's worthy of a longer stay.
Whitfield Shines in Appearance with Peninsula Symphony
by Keith Kreitman
Oakland Tribune, January 20, 2004
She came as a guest and left as the belle of the ball.
The Peninsula Symphony invited Wesla Whitfield to the Fox Theatre in Redwood City on Saturday to share in a program dedicated to the late George Gershwin, arguably the greatest American composer of the past century.
And Whitfield performed with such power and elegance that she simply overshadowed the host. From her very first note, it was obvious that this would be an exceptional concert. Her power over the stage and audience is similar to that of the late Broadway luminary Ethel Merman.
But Whitfield is a much better singer. In fact, she even rivals her acknowledged role model, Rosemary Clooney. Accompanied by the 100-piece orchestra, as well as her husband, Mike Greensill, on piano, John Wiitala on the bass and Vince Lateano on drums, Whitfield enchanted, enraptured and mesmerized the audience not only with her music but also with her nuanced gestures and comments.
In a string of tunes drawn from Gershwin and others, Whitfield displayed that same clarity of pitch and turn of phrase that made Frank Sinatra such a legend. Her emphasis on certain syllables made the melodies her own. From Gershwin, she sang such songs as "Our Love Is Here to Stay,""I've Got a Crush on You," "I've Got Rhythm," and was even able to turn that catchy show tune, "Nice Work if You Can Get It," into a romantic ballad.
But she also did a knockout version of "Guys and Dolls," by Frank Loesser, and then segued into the wildly romantic classic "September Songs" by Kurt Weill.
The orchestra accompanied the singer brilliantly in the second half of the program, but the first half faded by comparison.
Whitfield's Cool Phrasings Warm the Plush Room
by Joe Brown - San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2003
Wesla Whitfield is an indoor landmark. Every great city deserves a signature chanteuse, and San Francisco is fortunate to have Whitfield as its resident voice. Much like the city itself, Whitfield keeps an amused and affectionate eye on the glories of the past, while living entirely in the present.
On Tuesday, the opening-night crowd for Whitfield's yearly monthlong stand at the York Hotel came gratefully out of the cold rain into the low-lit and glowing Plush Room, with its dark wood paneling and red velvet drapes and stained-glass ceiling, and ordered Irish coffees and other warming cocktails.
Whitfield's arrival onstage warmed things up even further. A vivid, energetic presence with silvery pixie-cut hair, Whitfield was seated center stage and made eye contact with the audience as she began with a lyrical "But Beautiful."
With an air of playful defiance, Whitfield has titled her latest show "Why Shouldn't I?," drawing songs from a list of 20-odd not-so-standards, most of them from the 1930s. Several of the tunes appear on her latest CD, "September Songs: The Music of Wilder, Weill and Warren," and if there's a story line here, it's love remembered from the vantage point of a certain age. But as Whitfield sings them, there's nothing regretful or even nostalgic about this material.
A witty, creative interpreter with an easy charisma, Whitfield specializes in blowing the dust off songs that have suffered from overexposure and rough handling. She makes them glow again. She linked "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Jeepers Creepers" with a wry bit of optical allusion. And where else are you likely to hear novelty numbers like "Lydia," (that would be the tattooed lady) and the giddy "Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish"? (The latter includes the eternal rhyme "which of course she doesn't deservish.")
A secondary theme of Whitfield's song selection is a delight in sheer songwriterly cleverness. Singing with conversational clarity, adding little jazz flourishes, Whitfield reveled in a rush of wit and wordplay and made sure we caught every darn nuance and laugh line. A particular gem was Dave Frishberg's "Sports Pages" (the youngest song of this bunch, written in 1984), a paean to a section of the newspaper as a balm of certainty in uncertain times.
As usual, she's perfectly partnered with Greensill and bassist John Wiitala. Greensill, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, is a subtle, economical pianist, with a crisp, rhythmic, even frisky style, and the piano he's using at the Plush has a wonderful tone. Wiitala has a fluid, melodic way with the stand-up bass, and added a particularly lovely bowed conclusion to "I See Your Face Before Me."
Late in the show, Whitfield acknowledged her friend Paula West, another of this city's incandescent voices, who was sitting in the corner of the club. "Paula will be coming in (to the Plush Room) for a very long run after me," Whitfield said. "I'm just kind of a warm-up act for her."
That's something to look forward to. Meanwhile, a cabaret evening spent with Whitfield reclaims the tarnished phrase "adult entertainment." This is smart, sophisticated fun for grown-ups who appreciate the finer things, who get it.
Whitfield's Wonderful, Whimsical Ride
by Andrew Gilbert - Contra Costa Times
December 11, 2003
Wesla Whitfield's sensational new show at the Plush Room, "Why Shouldn't I?" isn't organized around any particular theme or composer. Rather, the Bay Area jazz/cabaret star has simply woven together a dozen and a half or so of her favorite tunes. Or maybe not so simply, since her choices reveal the contrasting impulses that make her performances so satisfying. A student of the American Songbook, Whitfield is known for her deft sense of swing and incisive ballad readings, which often reveal overlooked nuances in a lyric. Few singers are better at capturing the giddy high of falling in love and the overpowering anguish of heartbreak, topics explored thoroughly in the standard repertoire.
But no one besides Whitfield pairs a wildly romantic streak with a gift for gallivanting through the American Songbook's slim silly chapters, the gloriously daft works where lyricists indulge in their most imaginative word play. At Tuesday's performance, the opening night of a five-week run, she traced an emotional bell curve, starting with songs of quietly besotted love, building to an uproarious climax and then coming back down with some serious meditations on mortality and, of course, love.
She opened the show with a hushed version of the Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen gem "But Beautiful," and a sensuous rendition of Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman's "You Fascinate Me So," taken at a much slower pace than it is usually sung.
She was accompanied marvelously by bassist John Wiitala and pianist Mike Greensill, whose crystalline arrangements struck an optimal balance between open space and lithe harmonic support. Her warm, fine-grained voice has rarely sounded better, particularly on her occasional a cappella introductions.
Whitfield eased into a lighter mood with an ophthalmic medley of "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "Jeepers Creepers," followed by a section of tunes by lyricist Yip Harburg, including "What Is There to Do" and "Then I'll Be Tired of You," which boasts a beautiful, deceptively simple Arthur Schwartz melody. But it was the seldom-heard Harburg/Harold Arlen tour de force "Lydia," a descriptive piece about a well-tattooed lady, that unleashed Whitfield's antic sense of humor. She reached the zenith of silliness with her deft rendition of Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish," an ode to a cuckolded fellow that manages to rhyme "rupee" with "making whoopee." Whitfield has rarely given her playful side such free rein, and the results were delicious.
While Dave Frishberg's "Sports Page" seemed like more frivolity at first, it quickly changed directions with its sad-but-true view of baseball as a refuge from the moral ambiguity of politics (at least in the pre-steroids era). Whitfield's exhilarating rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" was a revelation, as he's a writer she rarely tackles. Fleet and smart, her reading begged for further Sondheim excursions.
With Wiitala's tolling bass seeming to mark the passage of years, her delicate version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's classic "September Songs," the title track of her latest HighNote album, was particularly evocative. After the drama and laughs, she sent the audience out into the rain with a bit of pallet-clearing holiday cheer, swinging sweetly through "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
This Singer's Singer Captures the Gold
Wesla Whitfield displays talent and taste in the first of five shows
at the Performing Arts Center
by Jeff Rubio
Orange County Register, February 20, 2003
Fans of the Great American Songbook, that collection of musical standards drawn mainly from the Golden Age of Broadway, should give real thought to heading to Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Saturday. The reason is Wesla Whitfield, surely one of the best interpreters of that genre on the planet.
Whitfield, in town as part of the center's intimate Cabaret Series, is a real singer's singer, a creamy alto (with an occasional hint of rasp to make things interesting) whose praises have been sung by Tony Bennett and a lot of other pedigreed vocalists.
The term "cabaret singer" certainly fits as well. She's a regular at many of the top cabaret spots in the country, including the famed Oak Room at New York's Algonquin Hotel and her home base, the Plush Room in San Francisco's York Hotel.
But don't expect feathered boas or big theatrical flourishes. As she demonstrated Tuesday in an 80-minute set, she's about serving the music, not the other way around. Given the accolades, Whitfield probably qualifies for diva-dom. But she rejects any pretentiousness. Instead, she embraces a graceful jazz style well-complemented by her pianist husband, Mike Greensill, a tasteful arranger and an accompanist of uncluttered elegance.
The set ranged from warmly playful to evocative, with tunes like Irving Berlin's "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me" and Sammy Fain's "I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain" exemplifying the former, and songs such as "In the Wee Hours of the Morning" providing the blue stuff.
In all cases, Whitfield, seemed to let the soul of the song unfold naturally, without undue exertion on her part. Her own instrument is such that she needn't push things. And she doesn't. Just smooth shifting here.
While the material is Broadway, there's a definite jazz groove throughout. Whitfield can swing, as she does on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "My Favorite Things." As usual, husband Greensill is a significant accomplice, who, like Whitfield, knows how to spice without compromising a song's original recipe.
The singer, and her audience, also had the benefit of talented bassist John Wiitala, who traded some impressive but unshowy solos with Greensill. His bowing of his stand-up bass added moody resonance to Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You." Indeed, there's enough good playing in support of Whitfield to satisfy one's instrumental craving.
As usual, Whitfield, a paraplegic since being the victim of a gun accident years ago, was carried by her husband to her stool next to his Yamaha grand piano. The legs may be immobile, but, as we were reminded during the lovely concert-closing rendition of "Over the Rainbow," the voice has wings.
In Singer's Hands, Old Songs Are Anything But Standard
by Richard Dyer
Boston Globe, August 24, 2002
Wesla Whitfield has a new, glam Marilyn Monroe look. "I got tired of dying my hair gray," the singer explained to her devoted and delighted audience at Scullers Wednesday night.
Whitfield hasn't been to the area for a couple of years, and it was good to have her back. Today there is no one better at what she does, which is to sing songs with a piano and bass in a small, dark room to people who love to listen to them.
In two generous sets, she offered a handful of standards -- "The Nearness of You," "Heat Wave," "Cheek to Cheek" -- some of them drawn from her newest CD (it's her 14th), an Irving Berlin songbook, "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me" (High Note Records). There was also a bouquet of tunes you don't hear as often -- Cole Porter's politically incorrect "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking," "An Occasional Man," Dave Frishberg's clever "Let's Eat Home," and a pair of songs by film composer Bronislaw Kaper, including "A Message From the Man in the Moon." "This song was in a Marx Brothers film, 'A Day at the Races,' but no one sang it -- it was just in the background, on the soundtrack. How's that for obscure?" Whitfield asked.
The singer has legitimate classical training -- she was once a member of the San Francisco Opera chorus -- but you don't hear any inflation in her tonal quality; where you hear it is in her long breath, which supports her elegant and expressive phrasing. She can still produce a sweet, clear sound when she wants to, and she wanted to in Berlin's irresistible "Moonshine Lullaby"; she can add and subtract vibrato; and she can even rasp -- whatever the song and her feeling about it requires. The technique also shows in a song such as "Green Dolphin Street," which is so hard for a singer to keep in tune that we usually hear it as an instrumental. Whitfield is good at chatting up the audience, which she treats as a group of personal friends. "Perry Como made this song famous, but don't let that worry you," she said before singing "Dreamer's Holiday." She can also beamusing about herself and her strategies ("Now we will have the rousing closer, followed by an encore"), and she informed us that her arranger-pianist, Mike Greensill, had asked her at what age it becomes "inappropriate" to sing "Blame It on My Youth" (Greensill is also her husband). She lost a lyric in "Heat Wave" then said, "But it looks so easy."
Ultimately, there is nothing easy about what Whitfield does; she just makes it sound that way. Her singing is musically sophisticated and emotionally direct, and when she sings "the moon is high, the lamp is low," even the neon gas-station sign visible through the Scullers windows looks glowingly romantic. Then she will turn sassy, worldly, or naughty, investing everything with her own experience of life.
She's also a sensational chamber musician and listener. Greensill is a deft arranger and admirable pianist who knows how and when to support a singer, how and when to stay out of the way. And bassist Sean Smith has a genius for his instrument;
he can inflect a plucked melody in the high register so that it sounds as if he's bowing, or even as if he's singing. "Nice 'n' Easy" was virtually a duet with Whitfield, and it was magic.
Whitfield, her fans know, was shot in the back by kids playing with a gun 25 years ago, and she usually sings on a high stool, to which Greensill carries her when she comes on. Last night was the first time I've seen her sing in her wheelchair. It gave her more mobility and more opportunity to address each member of the audience directly -- which is what Wesla Whitfield is all about.
With Mike Greensill, piano, and Sean Smith, bass
At Scullers, Wednesday
St Louis Post-Dispatch
July 24, 2001
by Judith Newmark
"Despite intense heat and thunderstorms, more than 8,000 people came to The Muny on Monday night for the opening of "An Evening of Gershwin." Because of weather, the show started 45 minutes late.But the rain cooled things down enough for those who rode out the storm to enjoy an evening of sophisticated entertainment to the max. The stylish chanteuse Wesla Whitfield, who has a nervy little edge to her voice, turns "I've Got a Crush on You" into a seductive, utterly elegant invitation.
The orchestra, under the direction of Michael Horsley, is clear and confident throughout. However, the second-act medley with Mike Greensill's refined piano is a welcome touch, evoking an evening in a New York penthouse with some terrifically talented friends. Incidentally, Whitfield and Greensill are married to each other. Also incidentally, Whitfield uses a wheelchair. Since she handles it matter-of-factly, the audience does, too. It's not an issue, just a circumstance. There may be some kind of lesson in that, but Whitfield is too impressive a singer to waste time pointing it out."
by Richard Dyer
"Listening to Wesla Whitfield you'd swear you were at Upstairs at the Downstairs or Le Ruban Bleu or one of the great New York cabarets of 50 years ago and more... only Scullers isn't a smoke-filled room.
"The timbre of (Whitfield's) limber mezzo-soprano voice basks in some of the sunshine Richard Rodgers admired in Mary Martin; she can put the vibrato in or take it out. Although Whitfield is from California, something like Lee Wiley's Oklahoma drawl lopes through her diction. She's both elegant and informal in the manner of Mabel Mercer, and because of an accident, Whitfield sings seated, as Mercer did. She's not a jazz singer, strictly speaking, because she doesn't improvise on the melodies and does rehearse her strategies, but her singing displays real jazz rhythm - it is always stretching and bending around the beat, and in each set she created a two-part invention with bassist Michael Moore.
Her husband-arranger-pianist, Mike Greensill, is a deft jazz stylist, but when accompanying Whitfield, he keeps the beat clean so she has something to play around with, and keeps his fingers out of registers of the piano that could cover her voice.
"Whitfield's better than just about anyone at chatting up the audience and dispensing information about the songs - before ''You're the One for Me,'' she quipped, ''This is a real gingko biloba lyric.'' Best of all, Whitfield can disappear into a song but simultaneously convey the feeling that she's sharing her own experience of life with some of her special friends.
'With a Song in My Hart' sounded fresh in an up-tempo version, and there wasn't anything commonplace about Whitfield's poignantly understated versions of 'I Didn't Know What Time It Was' and 'Little Girl Blue.' She is a master of comic timing, but even better at finding in an old pop song thoughts that lie too deep for tears."
The Los Angeles Times
by Don Heckman
"It's a rare moment when all the elements of a performance--the words, the music and the interpretation--come together in perfect balance. But that's exactly what happened Tuesday night when singer Wesla Whitfield opened a 10-night run at the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Whitfield has long been a favorite with cabaret audiences, and the imaginative, often swinging musical settings provided by her pianist/musical director and husband, Mike Greensill, have placed her in an attractive jazz context as well...What they are doing with Rodgers and Hart is sheer magic, a definitive illustration of how to realize the art music qualities in popular song. In three numbers in particular-- "You Are Too Beautiful," "Ten Cents a Dance" and "The Lady Is a Tramp"--Whitfield transformed
the songs into dramatic cameos. Beautifully sustaining their musical qualities, often via pure, airy high notes and unexpected little melodic twists, she used her fluent singing skills as a medium for storytelling, clearly delineating the inner character tales implicit in each work. She found the sardonic Hart wit in some tunes--"I Like to Recognize the Tune," for example--and his marvelous descriptive qualities (the colorful, mood-evoking lyrics of "Manhattan") in others. These extraordinary mini-dramas were accomplished within musical frameworks filled with sly musicality and an unerring sense of swing.
Greensill, immensely aided by the virtuosic bass playing of Michael Moore, accompanied in a fashion that both supported and challenged Whitfield's musicality, producing results as multilayered and intricate as the voice-piano interaction in a Schubert song. Working in combination as a trio--voice, piano and bass--Whitfield, Greensill and Moore were brilliant, an incomparable blending of musical intelligence and dramatic sophistication."
The Village Voice
by David Finkle
"When Wesla Whitfield sings, it's with the zing of a brushed cymbal, a quality that invigorates her entire repertoire...Is she the best singer -- jazz or whatever-- around today? No disagreement here."
N.Y. Daily News
by Terry Teachout
"Light up the skyrockets and put out more flags: Wesla Whitfield's back in town. The best cabaret singer in the world has set up shop at the Kaufman Theater with a one-woman show called "Life Upon the Wicked Stage." There's not much to it she sings 20 songs and chats about the ups and downs of her career but the talk is droll, the songs are wonderful and the singing is so good that you'll hug yourself with delight."
The Los Angeles Times
by Don Heckman
"Whitfield is, in short, a singer so good that she doesn't have to shout, she doesn't have to overdramatize, and she doesn't have to be anything other than what she is -- a nonpareil musical artist."
Chicago Sun Times
by Lloyd Sach
"There simply isn't a more captivating artist in the field than Whitfield, whose radiant interpretations of great American songs -- familiar and forgotten -- combine a reverielike intensity and pop-style immediacy...She pours the light of personal intimacy through them. Their stories become hers."
by Richard Dyer
"Whitfield internalizes a song so that she can share it as an aspect of her own resilience, humor, and hope."
The New Yorker
"Wesla Whitfield renders song classics with such imagination that her interpretations can't be confused with anyone else's. Her technique is distinctive, too: she spins out the longest phrases in the business, sometimes saving intense surges for the very end, where others would be completely out of breath. ..Even modest shadings of color or mood pack a wallop."
The Washington Post
by Mike Joyce
"...ability to stay true to the composer's intentions with unusual grace and empathy."
The Los Angeles Times
by Don Heckman
"One of the finest masters of popular singing, Whitfield should be scrutinized by anyone attempting to learn the subtleties of the vocal arts, and treasured by listeners who value beautiful music, beautifully done. Her voice is pure yet as malleable as a jazz horn, and she uses it with meticulous attention to detail. The result is superb jazz singing."
San Franscisco Examiner
by Philip Elwood
"My idea of the best of all possible musical experiences might well be Wesla Whitfield...her use of dynamics, often with a dramatic, personal flair...convert virtually every one of her renditions into a distinctive, personalized classic."
The New York Times
by Roxane Orgill
"Being a singer first and foremost gives her edge in the studio too. She knows how to make recordings that people want to listen to, even if they haven't caught her show at the Algonquin Hotel."
The New York Times
by Stephen Holden
(The Occasion was the 1995 Carnegie Hall series on the Music of Sinatra)
"Wesla Whitfield's pointedly sorrowful 'How Deep is the Ocean?' -- the series' single most compelling moment -- brought down the house."
"Whitfield is a singer who's got it all: clarion pitch, delicious tone, textbook enunciation, priceless timing, quick wit, and a lot more."