Swing's Her Thing

Up Front

August 07, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

San Francisco singer Paula West's strong, smoky voice propels a jazz swinger like "Caravan" with the smooth power of a Jaguar XK120. Then with admirable ease she corners silkily into a sultry ballad like "You're My Thrill."

West, who will appear Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Jazz in the Sculpture Garden, sings the standards from the Great American Songbook.

"I love them," she says. "It's my favorite music because the lyrics are so great."

Critics call her voice deep, rich and polished. "A heavyweight balladeer," Stephen Holden of the New York Times says. She searches the music for rarely sung verses of a Cole Porter tune or neglected choruses by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, such as all the transmutations of the song "Mountain Greenery."

"I like to listen to old recordings to get material that people haven't heard," she says.

And she makes unexpected additions to the songbook that bring a certain tang to her repertory like the lime in a Mojito. She sings Bob Dylan songs, then observes: "Actually, they're classics. They're almost 50 years old."

"I love doing Brazilian music," she says. On her CD titled Restless, she sings Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March," which is something like a literate scat song.

"It's very rhythmic and I like wordy material," she says. "I'm really drawn to lyrics."

And her range is wide open enough to include the songs "Don't Fence Me In," "Cow Cow Boogie" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe."

"Well, they swing," she says. "That's the most important thing for me, as far as the medium and up-tempo things go, that they have swing. And I try to bring different moods and textures to a set."

She's sung at such sophisticated places as the Empire Plush Room in her home base of San Francisco, the Oak Room of the storied Algonquin Hotel in New York City and even the somewhat less chic White House in Washington.

She sings regularly with Eric Reed, one of the finest and most adventurous young jazz pianists, and she's also sung with such stalwarts of the piano as Bruce Barth, Mulgrew Miller and Bill Charlap.

She hasn't yet settled on the program for her BMA appearance -- her first in Baltimore, by the way -- but she says, "I try to only do songs I like. Because if I do a song I like I never get tired of doing it."

She'll certainly do "Snake," by Oscar Brown Jr., a cautionary tale about bad choices in love.

"That's a big crowd-pleaser," she says.

And it will be a sort of tribute for Brown, who died May 29.

Paula West's performance begins at 7 p.m.; cost is $20. For information, call 410-396-6314.


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Growing up on the rough streets of Newark, N.J., Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt could have followed some of their childhood friends into crime and prison. They were raised in poor households headed by single women and mostly lacked good male role models.

Instead of taking the wrong path, though, after meeting one another in high school, they made a remarkable pact: They would resist the lure of the street, work hard in school and become doctors. Of course it wasn't easy, but they did exactly that. And then they wrote about their journey to success in a book called The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream. Not surprisingly, that 2003 New York Times bestseller got them lots of media attention and many requests to write their story in a book for kids.

So now, there's the newly published We Beat the Street (Dutton, $16.99), co-written with Sharon M. Draper. The 183-page book's chapters alternate the three doctors' stories and each concludes with inspiring personal comments. By telling their stories, the doctors say on the book's dust jacket, they hope to inspire kids "to form pacts of their own and reach for the stars."


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