Wesla Whitfield

                                 JERSEY JAZZ     June 3, 2010    By Joe Lang

It only takes Wesla Whitfield a few notes to remind listeners that they are hearing one of the most identifiable and special voices in the world of pop/jazz singing. Whitfield has all of the attributes that one could ask for in a vocalist. Her voice is musical, easy on the ears and always on pitch; she has a wonderful understanding of lyrics and the ability to convincingly convey their meaning to her audience; her choice of songs is tasteful and often unexpected; her phrasing is unerring; and she has a sense of humor that wonderfully enhances her performances. 

Whitfield brought all of these attributes, plus husband/pianist/arranger Mike Greensill, bassist John Witala and drummer Ray Marchica, for her five-night stand at The Metropolitan Room where she celebrated the world of movie songs. For each show she selected her program from a pool of 45 songs. The June 3 performance consisted of a well paced lineup of 15 tunes that covered the gamut from oft heard standards to humorous novelty ditties.

Greensill's trio opened the set with a visit "On Green Dolphin Street," one full of inventive twists and turns. Whitfield chose to open with a languid and moving reading of "Smile." She followed with an intense take on "Let's Face the Music and Dance," before staying with the Irving Berlin catalog for a lightly swinging "Blue Skies." 

Three-time Academy Award winner for Best Song Harry Warren was the composer who had more hit songs than any other pop composer, and Whitfield acknowledged this before singing two Warren tunes. "I Know Why (and So Do You)," with lyrics by Mack Gordon, became the big hit for Glenn Miller from "Sun Valley Serenade," and Whitfield sang it with a Miller lilt. She then sang Warren and Johnny Mercer's "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish," and found the essence of its humorous lyric.

"At the Codfish Ball" gave Whitfield an opportunity to recognize the impact that Shirley Temple had on popular taste during her run as a fan favorite. "When I Look in Your Eyes," a lovely song by Leslie Bricusse from "Doctor Doolittle," and the gorgeous "Whistling Away the Dark" by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini from "Darling Lili" were perfectly paired and sung by Whitfield.

She showed her surprising side when she flew through an impish take on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," not a song often heard these days. Sticking with songs from a cartoon source, she assayed "He's a Tramp" from the superb Peggy Lee/Sonny Burke score for "The Lady and the Tramp," abetted by some well place barks and howls from Greensill.

"Laura" was written for the film of the same name by David Raksin. After the film became a big hit, and the theme became popular, Johnny Mercer was asked to add the haunting lyric that Whitfield absolutely nailed. Greensill then added his vocal styling to a duet version of "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and was effective doing so

Whitfield had another surprise up her sleeve, and kept most in the audience guessing when she sang "The Blues Are Brewin'," and preceded her performance of it by challenging those present to identify the source of the song and who sang it in the movie. It was sung by Billie Holiday in "New Orleans."

It was now time for what Whitfield termed her "rousing closer" to be immediately followed by an encore. The closer proved to be another Warren tune, "We're in the Money, this one with words by Al Dubin, and she left us moved by a heartfelt rendering of the Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson classic "My Buddy."

This was simply a magnificent evening of song. Whitfield's impressive vocalizing was perfectly complemented by Greensill's trio and his imaginative arrangements. Her commentary was bright, informative and witty. The hour plus of entertainment went by so quickly and pleasantly that you found yourself once again convinced of the old adage about how quickly time passes when you are having fun. Whitfield and Greensill only occasionally make it to the New York area from their northern California base to perform, and that makes their appearances here ones that lovers of classic popular songs savor with fervor.