Jazz Stylist Wesla Whitfield Mines Neglected Gems

Wesla Whitfield will appear on Sept. 10 at the California Jazz Conservatory.

The California Jazz Conservatory show is dedicated to the backpages of the American Songbook.

Ever since they gave up their San Francisco digs for the quiet country life in Sonoma County, jazz/cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield and her husband, ace pianist, accompanist, and arranger Mike Greensill, have taken care in selecting Bay Area gigs. They’re still regulars at San Francisco’s leading cabaret, The Rrazz Room, but appearances in the East Bay have been few and far between.

Returning to the California Jazz Conservatory on Sept. 10, they’re joined by bassist John Wiitala, a musical partner for more than two decades (they last played the intimate space in February 2014 as part of a Peggy Lee program with biographer James Gavin).

Whitfield provided one of the highlights last year at the memorial concert for legendary jazz producer Orrin Keepnews at Yoshi’s, singing a ravishing medley of Harry Warren tunes accompanist by new music stars Kronos Quartet (it’s worth finding on YouTube). Keepnews, a longtime El Cerrito resident, produced several Kronos albums and numerous sessions by Whitfield and Greensill, and the Warren medley came from her gorgeous 2003 album September Songs (HighNote), on which Keepnews brought her together with the string quartet.

Whitfield has long stood out on a Bay Area scene brimming with stellar jazz singers. She’s a song stylist who brings keen emotional insight to a lyric, while paying close attention to a composer’s intention. Tart and unsentimental but unafraid of swooning bliss and aching regret, she imbues standards with her wry sensibility via finely calibrated phrasing and bespoke arrangements courtesy of Greensill, a pianist who swings with authority.

Whitfield does not scat. She’s been well documented over the years with 20 albums, though now she’s overdue for a new release. Her last recording, I Could Write a Book, was recorded at The Rrazz Room in 2011. The CJC concert is dedicated to the backpages of the American Songbook, with neglected gems from Rodgers and Hart, Robin and Rainger, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin.

Wesla Whitfield, 8 p.m. Sept. 10, $15. California Jazz Conservatory, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-845-5373, CJC.edu.

This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published Sept. 1, 2016 at 6 a.m.