Paula West
Paula West

The ever-shifting COVID-19 quagmire has kept arts presenters on their heels for months as the emergence of viral variants threatens to wipe away even modest plans for concert season normalcy. Some impresarios are leveraging the uncertainty to create new performance opportunities, often turning to outdoor spaces. But cabaret, that most intimate of art forms, doesn’t tend to thrive in the sunlight.

Paula West
Paula West 

While Feinstein’s at the Nikko’s usual room is being used as a rehearsal space for a yet-to-be-announced production, the hotel and its in-house presenter are creating an entirely new venue in Hotel Nikko’s third floor ballroom. Designed to showcase San Francisco jazz vocal star Paula West, who settles into a three-weekend residency Aug. 13–28, the space is an experiment, “something we’ve been talking about doing for years,” said Randy Taradash, creative director and general manager for Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

On a phone call last week, he said that he’d just received the design scheme for the new space, which aims to transform the ballroom into an elegant and acoustically friendly setting for a world-class jazz ensemble. “I don’t want you to feel like you’re going into a wedding,” Taradash said. “We’re draping a lot of the room, part of that is aesthetic and part is sound design.”

The high ceiling facilitates more air circulation, and two different table sizes allow larger parties to take in a show, while the room’s comfy dimensions leave plenty of space between tables. “We’re not stacking people,” Taradash said.

The residency reunites West with in-person audiences for the first time in almost two years, though she has given a few high-profile livestream performances. At a time when many artists transformed living rooms into nightclubs via Facebook Live, connecting with viewers through chatty informality, West turned up the glamour at a concert from San Francisco’s stately Saint Joseph’s Art Society. With all of her income suddenly gone, she was literally singing for her supper.

“Those livestreams saved my ass,” she said. “They really saved me. People were very generous, and I tried to make it an event, like we’re sitting here dressed up having cocktails, the closest thing to being at the Nikko.”

With her red-carpet ready assortment of gowns, West hews to an old-school sartorial standard whereby performers embody a sophisticated ideal. Her music is also polished, but rather than confining herself to the American Songbook she ranges freely across eras and idioms. Her sets are a seamless garment woven with jazz phrasing, whether she’s interpreting Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Jobim, protest anthems, folk songs, Hank Williams, Cole Porter, or Jimmy Webb.

Paula West
Paula West | Credit: John Barry Knox Photography​​​​​​

During lockdown, she added several new pieces to her book, including Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live,” James P. Johnson and Harry Creamer’s “If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight),” Mann and Weil’s hit for Cass Elliot, “New World Coming,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” an early ’30s standard revived by the Mamas and the Papas hit version in 1968. She wouldn’t tip her hand about the particular piece, but West said she’s also working on a Bruce Springsteen song.

Her ballroom band features some of her closest collaborators, including guitar great Ed Cherry, who spent more than a decade on the road with Dizzy Gillespie, and Juilliard-trained drummer Jerome Jennings (an alumnus of the Sonny Rollins band, a far more rigorous rhythmic academy than the storied conservatory). Nigerian-American Essiet Essiet, the last person to hold the bass chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, is a more recent addition.

The only Bay Area player is Alameda pianist Adam Shulman, who also writes many of West’s arrangements. But on the last week of the run, West is taking advantage of the presence of piano legend George Cables, “the first time we’ve ever worked together, and I’m more than thrilled,” she said.

The New York City-reared Cables was such a ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area scene in the 1970s that many people assumed he lived in San Francisco, though he was actually based in Los Angeles. Practically a house pianist at Keystone Korner, he was always heading north to play week-long runs with masters such as Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, or Joe Henderson.

Cables’s ties to the city went beyond music, as his longtime partner, Helen Wray, lived in San Francisco, and West performed at the memorial concert for her about a decade ago. Much like old times, his run with West is one of several engagements around the region, starting with a trio date Aug. 21-22 at The 222 in Healdsburg, a new venue booked by Jessica Felix (who founded, and until last year, ran the Healdsburg Jazz Festival).

On Sept. 26, he’s at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society with The Cookers, the all-star septet that includes drummer Billy Hart and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, who were both named 2022 NEA Jazz Masters last month (an honor for which Cables and Cookers bandmates Cecil McBee and Billy Harper are long overdue).

The pianist doesn’t have an extensive track record with vocalists, which makes the Feinstein’s date with West a fascinating experiment, much like the venue itself. Taradash designed the seating in an eight-row semi-circle around the stage so that every sightline is directed at the star.

Paula is such a unique performer,” he said. “She demands two things, intimacy and grandness. She’s so powerful. Her voice, both her actual and ideological voice, is so big, but she talks directly to you. The venue is grander, but [she doesn’t] want to lose the intimacy, the one-to-one person connection.”

As uncertainty about what constitutes safe fraternization once again spreads, one-to-one connections feel more important than ever.