Singers have a rough row. Other musicians project their imaginations through instruments that double as prophylactics for their egos, but a singer is an instrument, with a lot more on the line. You can’t hide behind shades and a mouthpiece; you’ve gotta smile, speak, and eyeball, and your look and attire count. Which may be why singers tend to be vain and testy, shivving each other with prettier smiles but no less disdain than, for instance, writers. This is especially true in cabaret, where an ocean of vocalists vie for a puddle of jobs, a setup worthy of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. Outside that zone, most singers are either mired in day jobs or vaunted as icons. A few weeks ago I heard a terrific singer in Kansas City named Millie Edwards, who, when asked if she played New York, explained that she worked full-time for the phone company. On the other hand, hardly anyone seems to remember Frank Sinatra as a singer, now that he is myth and metaphor.
One night last week, I saw two gifted singers on shaky perches— oddly enough, in the same room. Only one enjoyed the key perquisite of star treatment: an attentive audience. When Paula West first played New York two years ago, she hoped she would not have to return to waitressing back home in San Francisco. Having won acclaim and awards, she is no longer counting tips and has just completed three weeks at a West 46th Street boîte with a $30 cover called the FireBird Cafe, accompanied as usual by pianist Ken Muir and bassist Al Obidinski. She has made enormous strides. Is she a jazz singer moonlighting where the work is or a cabaret singer with jazzy inclinations? Not that it matters. And yet because West is shy in addressing the audience and not yet comfortable enough to fully mine the wit in witty songs (“Lorelei,” “Peel Me a Grape”), you wonder if a jazz qua jazz setting, drums, and a less genteel audience wouldn’t rev her up.
West has just about everything except experience, beginning with a superbly smoky contralto, warm and rounded throughout her range; assured time; and exemplary pitch— you trust her to do exactly what she wants, a listener’s luxury. She favors sustained notes, held forever and without vibrato, a device she overworks, but who can blame her?— it’s effective, if at times studied. Her legato phrasing, affecting timbre, and confident intonation allow her to revitalize a wide range of songs, each a judiciously chosen plum: “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (she goes to town on the release without sacrificing her snug sound); “You Go to My Head” (slow, dramatic, inventive); “Lover” (piping hot over double-time bass); “Cow Cow Boogie” (a romp made deeper by her long, evenly trammeled phrases); “Moments Like These” (a fine Burton Lane melody, long neglected). In addition to her extended whole notes, West has in common with Sarah Vaughan a propensity for pronouncing s as zh. She seems to have learned directness and simplicity as well as songs from Peggy Lee and Ethel Waters; her best numbers include the former’s “Some Cats Know” and the latter’s “Bread and Gravy,” an obscure marvel by Hoagy Carmichael, soon to share a centenary with Ellington and Astaire. West hasn’t recorded since the self-released 1995 Temptation, and she’s due— this time for a high-profile label.
After the featured attraction finishes at the FireBird, the cover charge and minimum disappear and Daryl Sherman takes over all by her lonesome— great news for music lovers, but a challenge to the performer, who had to play through a protracted changing of the audience and a table of tourists (including one from Memphis who requested “Love Me Tenderly”) who figured if it’s free it’s background. How anyone could misconstrue Sherman at full throttle for lounge music is a mystery, because she never gives in, singing and backing herself with energy and wit— there is a laughter in her voice that transfigures everything she sings, and her piano is robust and imaginative. When word gets out about the best bargain in the theater district, Sherman’s audience should blossom. She has an excellent new record with a star-studded band (A Lady Must Live on After 9), but seems even more energetic and determined on her own. She belongs to the high-voiced tradition of Mildred Bailey and Blossom Dearie, and she must know as many classic pop songs as anyone alive. Jazz informs her entire set, but few jazz rooms hire jazz singers, so she too is in cabaretland, albeit doing cleanup. In a stream-of-consciousness set that included “Memphis in June” (Hoagy), “Take Love Easy” (Duke), “Pocketful of Dreams,” “Manhattan,” and “Please” (” . . . lend a little ear to my plea”), she appeared impervious to slings and arrows. For a singer, even tourists are better than a day job.