Wesla Whitfield


January 14, 2005


You May Say I'm a Dreamer but I Can Imagine, Can't I?



he San Francisco pop-jazz singer Wesla Whitfield dryly observes at the start of her latest cabaret show, "In My Life," that the New Year has "very little to recommend it." So how does she advise those of us who share her dread to face the future? A retreat into fantasy is called for, she declares, her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. "Reality is highly overrated."

What follows is a show at Le Jazz au Bar in which Ms. Whitfield combines ruthless insight, intense emotion and highly evolved jazz phrasing into a musical evening that goes beyond mere entertainment to flirt with profundity. Ms. Whitfield has always shown signs that she glimpsed more than she let on about the popular standards she chose. But until recently, they have been flickers of light at the fringes of performances that often seemed complacent.

But since last I saw her, Ms. Whitfield has undergone a personal revolution. Her voice, at once tart and poignant, has acquired broader, subtler shadings, and she now reads a song like a personal short story in an artfully managed stream of rushes and hesitations, with half-spoken passages giving way to dreamy lyrical afterthoughts.

Her style, for all its originality, is anything but eccentric. Her interpretations are informed by a keen critical intelligence that views songs as tough-minded dialogues between cynicism and romantic faith. At the same time, Ms. Whitfield's husband and longtime musical partner, Mike Greensill, cushions her sharper edges with his gently contemplative pianism. (John Wiitala plays bass.)

One conceptual coup is the insertion of a pertinent excerpt from John Lennon's "Imagine" into Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "Pure Imagination." Another is a sequence of three songs, "We're in the Money," "Money" (from the movie "Cabaret") and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," offered as a critique of our gilded age.

"Some Other Time," from "On the Town," is carried into a metaphysical dimension that suggests a reunion in the afterlife. And "Bali Ha'i," floating on a light Latin pulse, becomes a song of witchy seduction.

In the realm of cabaret, you can't get much deeper and (in keeping with the show's theme) more imaginative.