What makes jazz singers like Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves great, along with their great voices and great singing, is their great personalities — their stage presence is as commanding as any song they sing.

With Paula West, whom I saw Friday night, the first concert of the Wachovia Jazz Series, what I enjoyed was her warm but demur stage presence, almost a bashfulness, with a hint of impishness, and reluctance to take too much of the spotlight away from the lyrics, her musicians, and the music. The song came first, the singer second.

“Theatrical” is not a word you’d use to describe West. “Reserved,” yes, maybe even “bookish.” With an understated sense of humor. She has a literate quality that comes through in her singing, an attention to words and their connotations. She and the George Mesterhazy Quartet did Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and she was careful to deliver it like a story, revealing a lush and poetic character that I hadn’t heard before due to sheer repetition.

She underscores sexual innuendo with a breezy cool, a reflection of her southern California roots. During Oscar Brown’s racy fable called “Black Snake,” she allowed the language to convey the obvious — that is, what the black snake is a stand-in for. The fable is about a woman and a snake. She invites the snake in. He bites her. She objects. He says, in essence, “Give me a break, you knew I was a snake when you invited me in.”

West clearly has a taste for muted irony. The crowd loved the chance to come to its own conclusion. No need to belabor the obvious among intelligent people. West trusted that we knew why the black snake moaned. She knew that showing us why was better than holding our hands and telling us.

(image above courtesy of The New York Times, published Oct. 22, 2007)