Among the evils "American Idol" has unleashed on the world is the notion that to sing a song, one must perform vocal gymnastics in such a mannered frenzy that the actual song becomes all but unrecognizable, not to mention eviscerated of all meaning, soul and heart.
Wesla Whitfield doesn't do that. She doesn't have to. She doesn't need to resort to vocal tricks because she has a real voice. What's more, as she demonstrates repeatedly in her sublime 15-song program at the Nikko Hotel's Rrazz Room through June 7, she can virtually worship the heart and soul of any song and make us want to be part of the congregation.
What a wonder is Wesla, and never so much as when she's working with that big talented lug she married, the eloquent pianist/arranger Mike Greensill. Three years ago, the city actually allowed these icons to escape to Wine Country, but as Wesla made clear on Thursday night even without singing that song, she left her heart in San Francisco and is grateful for the chance to catch up with it again for a while. So are we.
Her set, which she dubbed "As Time Goes By," ran the gamut from that song itself, to other standards such as "You Make Me Feel So Young," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "You've Got Possibilities," to the slyly suggestive "A Guy What Takes His Time" ("I have no idea what that song means," she deadpanned), to Lennon/McCartney's "In My Life" and the comic "A Little Tin Box" from the old musical "Fiorello."
Every song was a standout, of course, but if you can force yourself to stand outside the Whitfield magic for a bit, consider how she works, how she delivers a song. First, there is the phrasing, perhaps, as Mabel Mercer taught us, the secret to great singing. Whitfield's is precise - not that it's the same from song to song, but, in fact, correct and careful for each song.
And then there is the voice itself. It is, in the best ways, an unadorned instrument. There may be a slight vibrato here and there, but only for the most subtle emphasis at a key moment in a musical phrase. The rest of the time, it's clear, bell-like, unwavering.
Finally, there is her innate understanding that good singing is also good storytelling. Each song is a little novel for Whitfield, something rich with meaning and emotion, and her job -which she fulfills effortlessly time and time again in her 90-minute set - is to bring us in to the experience of the song.
Most singers would probably give in to the temptation to mess around with a standard, thinking, somehow, that you have to do that to make it seem "new." But when Whitfield sings "As Time Goes By," for example, she doesn't try to interpolate the notes from the outside, but rather by honoring the song as it was written, finds new meaning within its structure. The understated way she delivers the line "that no one can deny," for example, is absolutely thrilling because somehow, though we've heard that lyric over and over again, all of a sudden, it's this hushed surprise.
Greensill is every bit her partner on stage, of course. His arrangements mirror his wife's artistic respect for the material while at the same time making the familiar seem somehow new again. He and Whitfield are ably supported by drummer Vince Lateano and the always terrific John Wiitala on standup bass.
Time does go by at the Rrazz Room when Wesla Whitfield sings, but far, far too quickly.
WESLA WHITFIELD, with the Mike Greensill Trio, 8 p.m. nightly, through June 7, The Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco; Tickets $35- $45; www.therrazzroom.com, www.ticketweb.com or by calling (866) 468-3399.
E-mail David Wiegand at firstname.lastname@example.org.