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Wesla Whitfield: The Best Thing For You Would Be Me

As Cy Coleman is to the New York cognoscenti, so Irving Berlin is to all folk, common or otherwise. Such is the magic of Berlin, that his songs not only stand the test of time but remain as equally resonant on the Upper East Side as they are in, say, Manhattan, Kan. Over the years, everybody from Ella to Doris Day has taken a satisfying dip or 12 into the Berlin songbook. Never before, though, has San Francisco’s most prolific songbird, Wesla Whitfield, indulged us with an entire platter of Berlin tunes. Blessed with the rare ability to combine a keen jazz sensibility with a cabaret performer’s respect for tradition, Whitfield is ideally suited to explore the subtle nuances that define the deceptive simplicity of Berlin’s work. Dividing the 17 tracks that fill The Best Thing for You Would Be Me almost equally between ballads and uptempo numbers, and including an intriguing surprise or two among the standard fare, she provides her beautifully seasoned mezzo-soprano with a vigorous workout. In less experienced hands, Berlin chestnuts like “Remember,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and “How About Me?” can sound creakily melodramatic. Whitfield, however, skillfully avoids excess sentiment by maintaining a gentle caress that’s soft but never too sweet. Conversely, she knows precisely how to temper big, brassy numbers like “Blue Skies” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” never allowing the lyrics to become obscured by such songs’ inherent bravado. Particularly impressive is her seamless blending of “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “It Only Happens When I Dance With You,” with “Change Partners” as a stimulating chaser. It’s also a treat to hear her take a playful spin through the unfairly neglected “Not for All the Rice in China.” There is, of course, a well-known secret to Whitfield’s success. His name is Mike Greensill. As husband, arranger and accompanist, he is the yin to her yang. In other words, on album after album, the best thing for her has been him.

Originally Published