What is it? California jazz/cabaret vocalist Paula West backed by pianist George Mesterhazy’s combo. West and Mesterhazy are adept at guiding familiar and obscure tunes into new directions; their smooth, delicate twists on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” The Beatles’ “Fixin’ a Hole,” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” are fine examples.

Why see it? It’s probably not fair to tag Paula West simply as a jazz singer. She’s too versatile. Growing up in San Diego, she sang in church choirs before striking out on her own. In her early days, she performed at San Francisco lounges (most notably the Ritz-Carlton), honing her distinctive approach to the standards. Many took note of her ability to sustain notes without the use of vibrato. Award-winning arranger and bandleader Mesterhazy, an East Coast pianist well known for his work with Shirley Horn and Rebecca Parris, leads the quartet.

Who should go? One of the standout American acts in this year’s Wachovia Jazz Series, West should appeal to music fans from all corners of the music realm.

Paula West with the George Mesterhazy Quartet • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$40 • 1 hour 15 min. • May 23, 24 at 9 p.m. • The Cistern, 66 George St. • (843) 579-3100

Her Favorite Things: Paula West expands the American songbook


“I always like to have an interesting mix of things and take people through different emotions,” says jazz/cabaret vocalist Paula West, who makes her Charleston debut this week at the Wachovia Jazz Series concerts at the Cistern.

“I think the funny songs are important — romantic songs, sad songs — they all take people through different moods. I like a mix of up-tempo, world music influence, and maybe Latin music influence. Not too many ballads. I think some make the mistake of adding too many ballads in a program.”

West’s cool and confident performing style suits her progressive approach to arranging standards from the pop and jazz lexicon. Audiences at these Wachovia Jazz Series events can be very open-minded and receptive to new ideas and sounds, whether it’s an odd instrumentation, a wacked-out arrangement, a modern technique, or an unexpected musical twist or rendition.

They’ll surely delight in the tricks and treats West has in store.

Backed by pianist and award-winning arranger/bandleader George Mesterhazy’s quartet, West plans to draw from an astounding repertoire of music — ranging from Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, and Oscar Brown Jr. tunes to Dylan, The Beatles, and Hank Williams Sr.

The West/Mesterhazy collaboration is adept at guiding familiar tunes into new directions. Their smooth, delicate twist on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” The Beatles’ “Fixin’ A Hole,” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” are fine examples.

“I’ve been working with George for three years,” West says. “He makes fantastic arrangements. The group we have for Spoleto is really the main group, the number one configuration that we use. I think people compliment us the most for taking a popular song and making it sound fresh or making it sound different. There’s really no point in doing it if you don’t have a fresh approach.”

West grew up in a Marine Corps family in San Diego. As a young woman, she got into jazz singers like Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan. While in college, she gradually started singing in public at various local get-togethers.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to do something in a creative field,” she remembers. “I started taking lessons and sitting in at jam sessions. I thought maybe I could do things occasionally for family and friends. Then it turned into something else.”

After college, West moved to San Francisco, where she immersed herself in classic jazz, early-century popular music, classical music, and cabaret tunes. Donald Smith, the founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation and the force behind the Cabaret Convention, arranged for her engagement at the legendary Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in 1996.

Through the years, West honed her distinctive approach to singing. Many took note of her ability to sustain notes without the use of vibrato. It adds a subtle effect to certain build-ups and crescendos. West lightly laughs it off, though.

“I guess I have good breath control,” she says. “I played the clarinet growing up. That might have something to do with it.”

West’s discography includes Temptation, Restless, and her latest release Come What May. With every new release, she has reworked unusual selections with unexpectedly clever arrangements.

“In the years of working with this band, I haven’t really changed musical direction as much as I’ve opened the songbook up wider,” West says. “Sometimes people might say, ‘I never really liked Bob Dylan until I heard your version of that song.’ I feel limited working with things only from the 1920s, ’40s, and ’50s. The songbook has expanded.”