Wesla Whitfield


Wesla Whitfield can make a familiar song sound completely new.

David Wiegand,                Saturday, May 15, 2010

Music has had a tough time of it in Hollywood over the years. It took until 1934 to give Oscar consideration to songwriters, after which movie songs were pretty hot stuff for a while. Now, more often than not, movie soundtracks are mere compilations of existing pop songs.

In between, lots of great songs were written for the movies, and Wesla Whitfield, the Bay Area's greatest treasure next to, oh, the Golden Gate Bridge, celebrates them in a superb set at the Nikko Hotel's Rrazz Room through the end of the month.

That you shouldn't miss it goes without saying. Whitfield has this maddening, uncanny ability to take the most familiar ditty and make it feel completely new and untarnished through her singular musicality. If you're able to detach yourself from the emotional cloud she creates in her delivery of songs such as Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" or David Raksin and Johnny Mercer's "Laura," pay attention to what, for other singers, would be the boringly technical nuts and bolts of the delivery. The tone is bell-like and clear - the vibrato held to a minimum and used only toward the end of a perfectly held note.

Her phrasing is, of course, a wonder of gentle surprises: You hear it in the way she holds the word "so" in the "Smile" lyric "ever so near" - two letters, one syllable, adding up to something so sizzling, it's nearly X-rated. Then there's the way she takes "Codfish Ball," which Shirley Temple sang in "Captain January," and gives it a grown-up twist, slowing the bounce with a knowing wink to the audience that we ain't just talking about frolicking seafood here, folks.

There's a reason that Whitfield and her pianist husband, Mike Greensill, chose songs from the late '20s to 1970, and that is because often, movie songs from that half-century were meant to be integral to the films themselves. At the same time, Greensill and Whitfield have pulled them out of context to remind us that they were written by real masters of the American songbook.

The noir film "Laura," for example, was murky, mysterious, otherworldly, and so was the Raksin-Mercer song that wafted throughout the film like fading blue smoke from a crushed cigarette. Whitfield's delivery both celebrates the hypnotic brilliance of the film while giving the number a faintly lively bounce, transforming it from a song of melancholy and mourning to one of fondly remembering a past love.

Among the other highlights in the set are the plaintive Harry Warren/Mack Gordon song "I Know Why (and So Do You)," the giddy and glorious "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish," by Warren and Mercer, and the heartbreaking "When I Look Into Your Eyes," by Leslie Bricusse.

Greensill's arrangements are as much on display as Whitfield's thrilling vocals. And he's more than ably supported by bassist John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano, charter members of the Bay Area's musical aristocracy.

You won't have a better time at the movies than the hour and a half you spend in the dark with Mike and Wesla.