A muggy spring evening settled into a cool setting at the moss-draped Cistern last Friday night. It was nearly a full house when jazz vocalist Paula West and her backing group the George Mesterhazy Quartet stepped on stage in front of the red-lit Corinthian columns.
Dressed in a full black gown, arms outstretched, West beamed with confidence and looked totally at ease as she and bassist Barak Mori launched into an unexpectedly upbeat intro to the rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Lover.” It was the first of several bass-and-vocal moments of the concert.
It only took a few tics for the sound guys to adjust the mix (those drums were a bit loud at first) and for the band to lock into a groove, but things came together nicely by the tune’s rousing conclusion.
Looking very hip at stage left in a beret, Mesterhazy — a skilled veteran of Shirley Horn’s band — guided Mori, drummer Tony Reedus, and electric guitarist Ed Cherry with subtle hand gestures and piano cues. They glided through low-key bossa nova and swing rhythms, traded solos, and punctuated all the right accents. Very tight.
Cherry’s phased guitar effects resembled something The Police’s Andy Summers may have added on a side project — simultaneously modern and exotic, jazzy and rock-esque. Reedus’ fluid drum work enhanced every piece.
“This is a joy and thrill to be here in Charleston,” West said after the third tune, visibly pleased with the audience’s response. “You know I’m from the South, too … Southern California!” With that, they detoured into a respectfully loungy version of Hank Williams’ old rockabilly/country hit, “Jambalaya.” Folks stayed seated at the front of the lawn, but the rendition sparked a few bouts of spontaneous dancing toward the back rows.
They shifted gears into slinkier swing territory with another Rodgers and Hart tune before building up momentum with a groovin’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” — one of several unlikely pop music pieces from what West calls “the expanded songbook.” Where Dylan might hit high notes in the chorus (“How does it fee/to be on your own”), West led the melody into a completely different direction. Mesterhazy and the band managed a really amusing fade-out as well, which kept the audience on the edges of their seats.
By this time, her strongest talents were obvious: singing with an assertive voice and a laid-back manner, twisting a melody into a new mood with her own inflections, and sustaining notes without the use of vibrato, which added a subtle effect.
West’s performance was remarkably reserved, careful, and expressive, and her vocal ability impressed the entire audience. Missing were the endless scales and obnoxious tackiness of which some vocalists in this jazz/cabaret field are terribly guilty. It was refreshingly simple, unaffected, and cool.
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