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JAZZ REVIEW

She's Got That Swing

Weslia Whitfield works magic with the lyrics.

March 20, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is a tradition in jazz for a kind of singing that is elegant, articulate and unassumingly candid. Ella Fitzgerald was one of its most avid practitioners, singing--in her "Songbook" collections--with disarmingly unadorned clarity and directness. Lee Wiley did it in the '30s and '40s, as did Irene Kral in the '70s.

The 1990s' most gifted advocate of the style is Weslia Whitfield, the San Francisco-based artist who has, in the past few years, emerged as a paragon of focused, superficially unadorned, but creatively dense jazz-based singing. On Tuesday night, opening a two-week run at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, she was superb--working at the top of her form, and demonstrating in song after song the great values of subtlety and musical sophistication.

That Whitfield is a lyricist's best friend was apparent in every note she sang in a program ranging from Sammy Cahn to the Gershwins to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Not only did she phrase every line in a fashion that expressed the thought and articulated the words, she also found the wit, the whimsy and the satire in each number, giving precisely the right touch of emphasis to lines such as "When love congeals, it soon reveals, the faint aroma of performing seals . . . " from Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again."

She found new life, and new emphasis in standards such as "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "Paper Moon," "Too Late Now" and "Almost Like Being in Love," and she added a poignant rendering of an unfamiliar but powerful song from the '50s, "I'm the Girl."

Of course, there are many cabaret and musical theater stylists who work well with lyrics. Whitfield's great talent is that she doesn't stop with the lyrics, never separating them from the music, constantly aware that songs are not acting exercises, but stories told via musical expression. In the last few years, working closely with her husband, jazz pianist Mike Greensill, she has developed a fine, driving feeling of swing, often floating her lyrics above the rhythm before dropping them down to generate a brisk, propulsive drive.

Whitfield is, in short, a singer so good that she doesn't have to shout, she doesn't have to overdramatize, and she doesn't have to be anything other than what she is--a nonpareil musical artist.

BE THERE

Weslia Whitfield, with Mike Greensill, piano, and Michael Moore, bass, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, tonight and Friday at 8 p.m., $15 cover; Saturday at 8 p.m., $20; Tuesday, Wednesday, March 27 and 28 at 8 p.m., $15; March 29 at 8 p.m., $20; and March 28 and 29 at 10:30 p.m., $12. There is also a two-drink minimum. 7000 Hollywood Blvd. (213) 466-7000.

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