When West is in the East

Jazz vocalist Paula West hopes to bring some cheer to Israelis at her concerts here.

Paula West 88 248 (photo credit: Gary Brewster)
Paula West 88 248
(photo credit: Gary Brewster)
Most wind instrument players from the jazz fraternity will tell you they try to get their instruments to "sing." Vocalist Paula West knows exactly what they mean. "I started out playing classical clarinet," she says ahead of her three remaining gigs in this slot of the 2008-9 Hot Jazz series. "I think that training certainly helps me with my breathing which, of course, is a very important part of singing." The series producers have dubbed West's shows "a tribute to Nina Simone," but the singer's repertoire stretches far and wide. "Yes, I'll be doing Simone material, but I never like to get stuck in just one area," she notes. "There's so much great material out there that I like to explore." Simone was admired by fans across the board for her emotive readings and the depth of her voice, and that certainly appeals to West, too. "She had a wonderfully warm voice which, I think, moved people. I also try to feed off emotions and I hope I manage to convey that, and that my audiences believe in what I am singing." The suitably named West hails from San Diego, California and she was initially exposed to a rich diet of classical music. "My father listened to classical records," she recalls. "We didn't have a lot of jazz records at home when I was a kid." In fact, West wasn't much of a closet warbler either. "I didn't really sing at all as a kid, although I didn't think the sounds that came out of my mouth - when they did - were offensive to anyone." Considering West's current stature as an in-demand professional, that sounds like understatement, and modesty in the extreme. West's musical epiphany came when she was at college, when she started getting into the work of such divas of the jazz and jazz-related disciplines as Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Having settled on a career direction, she gradually began nurturing her skills, endeavoring to learn the business from ground level before offering the public the benefit of her hard-won expertise. "I moved to San Francisco and began waiting on tables and sitting in with all sorts of bands and musicians," she explains. "I did a lot of backing vocals, and that helped me improve and learn from the guys at the front of the stage." Meanwhile, she made frequent forays to thrift shops to pick up old records for next to nothing. "I listened to stuff by Billie Holiday and Ella [Fitzgerald], and also [multidisciplinary singers] Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt. I also enjoy looking for obscure songs. It's all about getting the message across to the audience." BESIDES JAZZ standards and the Great American Songbook, fortysomething West's musical self-education encompasses more contemporary material. As long as the raw material is up to scratch, both musically and textually, West will give it a go. "I do songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and [Beach Boys leader] Brian Wilson, as well as by [iconic musical songwriters] Rodgers and Hart. I have reverence for good music and I am always lyrically driven. That's the common ground. You take songs by [musical songwriter] Cole Porter or Dylan or Wilson, and you see they all have great lyrics." West says she will include Dylan and Wilson numbers in her shows here. Naturally, it's not just what you have, but what you do with it that provides the added value. Personality also comes into it, and West intends to use her sunny disposition to entertain us and - possibly - help get our minds off the bad stuff going on in the south of the country. "I tell stories through songs, and hopefully connect with the audience. I won't be doing anything different here, even considering the current [security] situation. There's always light material to deliver, and it's always a form of escapism. I'm open to anything." Paula West will perform with long-time accompanist pianist George Mesterhazy, local bassist Gilad Abro and drummer Shai Zalman at the Tel Aviv Museum Thursday evening at 9 p.m., Friday at 9:30 p.m. and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on Saturday at 9 p.m.