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Issue 524 : October 13-19, 2005

Please put your hands together for Paula West

Throughout the '90s, San Francisco's Paula West rose at dawn to wait tables after performing almost nightly in restaurants and bars. Sometimes customers came to hear her sing, curious to see the other side of their shy young waitress. They were in for a revelation. Her rich, dusky voice was a treat for the ear, her taste in standards was flawless, and she swung. But West kept her day job until 2001, determined never to have to compromise by singing Whitney Houston covers or "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Now, the local pride in West (who steadfastly refuses to divulge her age but is solidly in cabaret's younger generation) is spreading. Her no-frills combination of a luscious sound, a relaxed jazz sense and an incisive understanding of lyrics has made her the only singer in years to earn serious respect in both the cabaret and the jazz worlds. Last fall, West appeared in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's gala performance of Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige Suite"; this week, she began her fifth annual engagement at the Algonquin, segueing from Ellington to Dylan and Johnny Cash.

In the tradition of Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan, West is a little haughty, a little down-home and too earthy to wallow in sloppy sentiment. "I don't like it when people share their personal shit onstage," she says, bursting into laughter. "It's not about me; it's about all of us connecting to the music." —James Gavin

Paula West plays the Cabaret Convention Monday 17 and is at the Algonquin's Oak Room through November 5. - James Gavin