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HIGH STANDARDS


HighNote Records 1998
HCD 7025
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High Standards - Wesla Whitfield
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HIGH STANDARDS

  1. From This Moment On
  2. I didn't Know What Time It Was
  3. Don't Explain
  4. Just One Of Those Things
  5. Where Are You ?
  6. My Favorite Things
  7. Exactly Like You
  8. Ev'rything I Love
  9. How High The Moon
  10. Don't Take Your Love From Me
  11. Let's Do It
  12. Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye

HIGH STANDARDS

wesla whitfield: vocals
mike greensill: piano / arranger
Michael Moore: bass
Joe LaBarbera: drums
gary foster: reeds

orrin keepnews: producer





HIGH STANDARDS


For starters, she is an original, and a distinctly American original at that. She sings the homegrown songs that have entered the world's musical vocabulary: some of them she makes new, most she simply makes right, and some, like "Where Are You" on this disc, actually seem to get older, benefiting from Whitfield's ability to recapture the past without mocking it. Lots of modern singers have headed in this direction, but Whitfield shines in a crowd: at a "disappointing and often dreary" Carnegie Hall tribute to Judy Garland, in the spring of '98, the New York Times went on to single out Whitfield for "the only live vocal performance with emotional bite."

Her voice has a clarity found in the better wines of her native California, and her warm and welcome timbre helps her sound like no one else. It contains a little sugar and a little more salt, and it's wonderfully weighted – thicker on the low notes, gently thrilling in the middle, and unforced even at the top. In her diction, she ignores the odd attempt of so many singers to sound like they come from someplace they don't. She doesn't drop her "R"s or broaden her "A"s, so she never sounds like a wannabe soul singer or some ersatz Briton. Her dead-on intonation lets every leap or plunge ring absolutely true, and just hear what it does to that last clarion note on "Don't Take Your Love".

Of course, Whitfield's originality also stems from the fact that she resists those categorizations mentioned up above. But whether or not she qualifies as a jazz singer, she certainly sings jazz. Like the musicians and arrangements with which she perfectly frames standard after standard, she invokes and honors out greatest 20th-century export.

Mostly, I think, Wesla Whitfield is about the most gracious contrarian you will ever encounter. She uses her formidable intelligence to go against type in the songs she sings, but in supple, subtly ways. She doesn't dress up her material for the sake of fashion; instead, she makes small alterations based on her grand musical intelligence. For a perfect example, start at the beginning of this album, with her version of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On." The rhythm section launches into a beguine-inspired tempo, augmented by the exotic counter-line from Gary Foster's bass clarinet, and when Whitfield enters, you might well expect her and the band to launch into the quick-time tempo that usually characterizes this tune. Rest assured, she will. But first, confounding expectations, she lengthens the melody line, spreading it over the simmering rhythm like a bridge over troubles waters. And suddenly, this all too familiar tune becomes surprisingly fresh.

Or take another of the five Porter classics that grace this album, "Everything I Love." As she does whenever possible, Whitfield includes the verse – a choice less simple and more welcome than you might think. Verses have fallen into disrepair in American music, and this one suggests why. It verges on both the coy and the pedantic – no easy feat (leave it to Porter!) – and only a handful of modern singers could present such a paradox without falling flat on their kissers. But in her straightforward reading of the acrobatic wordplay, Whitfield leaves behind both the cuteness and the smugness of the rhymes, effortlessly reclaiming Porter's intent. And after that, the simple devotional of the chorus has all the more punch.

The rest of Whitfield's collaborating takes place much closer to home. Her husband, the British-born pianist Mike Greensill, acts as her musical director and shares the singer's bred-in-the-bone appreciation for the nuance of great American song; he gets the credit for the smart but simple arrangements throughout the disc. The rest of the rhythm section boasts an astounding versatility: the roundly hailed bassist Michael Moore has played with just about anyone he's wanted to, and the drummer Joe LaBarbera has the distinction of having anchored the first band that made Chuck Mangione famous and the last (and potentially greatest) trio that Bill Evans ever led. They form a malleable and resilient cushion for Whitfield's voice, making a good thing that much better. And Gary Foster's alto, which here shares space with his often overlooked flute, never loses its cool, providing a terrific complement to the natural shadings of Whitfield's voice.

As delightful as this album turned out – and it stands with her very best work on disc – it lacks the easy wit and practiced timing with which Whitfield in performance introduces her songs and banters with her listeners. Too bad: those qualities, so much a part of her sets, initiate a separate sort of intimacy, and they further reveal her kinship with the songwriters she celebrates. So go see her, sooner than later, and you'll thank me for the suggestion.

She'll be at some jazz club, or else some cabaret, or maybe back at Carnegie Hall. And you know, any of them will do just fine.

-- Neil Tesser author The Playboy Guide To Jazz
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