A Jazz Album Made to Last

I first heard the jazz singer Paula West’s début album, “Temptation,” not long after it came out, in 1997, and it gave me the conviction that adulthood might be an interesting place to live. I was barely thirteen, but the confidence with which West sang buoyed my own. Her style, precise and wistful, let in breezes from a mature world. “Temptation” turns twenty-five this year, and what strikes me at the milestone isn’t just my conviction that the album remains as dazzling as ever but the realization that, in twenty-five years, I have never once stopped listening to it, never taken it from frequent rotation. The world has changed; the album hasn’t. It can be hard to remember in these TikTok times that the power of recording is to let work live not just in its moment but across the years: to help preserve what’s good enough to last.

West was in her mid-thirties when she recorded “Temptation,” and took her title from the notoriously ponderous machista torch song made famous by Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, and the University of Michigan marching band. She turned the ballad winning and coy, placing it alongside wisecracking female standards like “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” and “Peel Me a Grape,” and that reconsideration set the album’s tone. West recast Sidney Clare and Jay Gorney’s clammy thirties song “You’re My Thrill” (“how my pulse increases / I just go to pieces”) as a bossa-nova seduction number. She brought in newer ballads, such as “You’ll See,” by the Bay Area songwriter Carroll Coates, in a classic form. Her vocal signature of long-held notes, straight and full, no vibrato, seemed as much a mission statement as a mark of style. The mid-nineties had brought a high-sheen renaissance in vocal jazz—it was the age of Diana Krall’s ascent, Shirley Horn’s orchestral resurgence, and Tony Bennett’s turn to MTV—but West veered away from the era’s overwrought fashion, to follow her songs’ clean, direct lines.

West was based in San Francisco, and, for those of us who lived there at the time, her arrival on the scene came with an extra thrill of intimacy. She had moved to the Bay Area in 1988, after growing up in a military family in San Diego. With no musical experience besides childhood clarinet lessons, she enrolled in singing classes at the Learning Annex on a whim; within a few years, she was performing in restaurants and clubs around town. She connected with the pianist Ken Muir, and they booked ever more impressive gigs on the road. West’s work was distinctive, and her stage manner disarming. In 1996, after she gave a series of performances in the Oak Room, at the Algonquin, in New York, the Times published a review that situated her between Lena Horne and Billie Holiday. It praised her “exceptional precision and control,” and noted, in a rueful aside, that she was still earning her living as a waitress.

When “Temptation” was released, on a small label, in 1997, it sent a frisson through the jazz world. Formally, West sang in the straight-ahead acoustic club tradition, with an ensemble of drums, bass, and, in various arrangements, guitar, piano, saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet. But her style was unmistakable, and her repertoire was imaginative and sly. That year, my parents watched West perform for the first time—a jazz-musician friend took them to one of her sets at the Empire Plush Room—and they came back enraptured, with a “Temptation” CD in tow. From then on, the album was never off rotation in our house. When my family puzzled over the right birthday gift for a friend, it would end up being “Temptation.” When we rented a spider-infested A-frame for a week in the mountain woods, West’s CD came with us, and we played “Mountain Greenery,” from Rodgers and Hart’s first hit show, in the nineteen-twenties, through the screen doors to a deck table laid with roasted corn and citronella candles.

I was in my early teens by then, and, in a curious way, so, too, was San Francisco, shooting up in stature and watching its quirky art endeavors catch an updraft. If you were a lettery, Dickens-reading middle schooler whose friends swapped pencil cartoons, Kinko’s zines, and paperbacks of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” it was a good time to be alive. My idea of the apogee of sophistication then was drinking evening cappuccinos at a sidewalk table outside Caffè Greco, in North Beach, as the fog came in and European expatriates smoked nearby. There was jazz playing down the street, and, as exciting and romantic as jazz is under many circumstances, it is even more exciting and romantic if you are thirteen and have just had several cappuccinos. I knew nothing about the music, but I was aware that it distilled a feeling, still new to me then, that life held adventures tantalizingly just out of reach—that my childhood fantasies of other worlds were being adapted to the world in which I lived. West’s album, in the longing circumspection of its ballads and the light insouciance of its up-numbers, fit that turn. The wistfulness of her “There’s No You” channelled, for me, the emotional acceleration of youth, when even the recent past seems to have happened long ago. I saw her perform it only once, outdoors, at Ghirardelli Square, on a white-skied summer day in high school, and by then she and I seemed to share a valedictory attitude to the city: we were there but gone, already lost to faster lives ahead.

That moment now seems a long time ago. Over the years that followed, West was indeed successful in a way that many vocalists in jazz are not. She released two more albums in short order, touring the best clubs in the country all the while. She played versions of herself in a few movies (most strikingly in the Robin Williams vehicle “Bicentennial Man”). In 2013, she was the female soloist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center revival of Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” a series of performances that got favorably compared with the original. She’d gone from aspirant to standard-bearer in a couple of decades.

The landscape of music recording, meanwhile, had changed. People stopped buying CDs, and then, in many cases, they stopped buying albums. Songs became like Robert Louis Stevenson’s toy boats, small floating pieces that were dispersed and scattered among the fast flow of streaming platforms. Tracks grew shorter and front-loaded (for artist-payment purposes, Spotify counts “streams” by play-throughs of the first thirty seconds only, so producers have incentives to be brief); it would be almost inconceivable for a new album to begin, as “Temptation” does, with a thirty-four-second heraldic solo on the toms. Whatever great American cities were for jazz in 1997, they’re less than that now—or, anyway, the stakes are greater. The Plush Room, in San Francisco, where my parents first saw West, has shuttered. The Oak Room, at the Algonquin, where she impressed the Times, has closed down, too. Both cities now have an official jazz concert hall. The art form is being actively preserved.

West’s ascent began to level with that shift. She has released only one album in the past twenty years. Her performance schedule is less than hectic. “I don’t think I’ve made it,” she told Alta Journal a few years ago—an unsettling thing to hear on the far side of what looked like a charmed trajectory. “If I’d made it, I’d be working more consistently.”

During the same years, I left San Francisco, set anchor in a stream of other places, and returned an almost uncountable number of times. I developed adult paths and preferences and rhythms, married in a late and lucky break from them, and now find myself approaching the end of the beginning—or the beginning of the big mountain ahead. I’m today about the age that West was when she made “Temptation,” a quarter of a century ago. Her fate in art feels personal to me.

My admiration for “Temptation,” though, has been unwaning all the while, and I want to put it on the record that the reasons aren’t purely nostalgic. (Proust referred to music held in the heart as “that definite object which was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought,” but my mind has never been that fashionable, and West’s album crossed too many periods of my life to stick to one.) The other day, over dinner, I put on “Temptation” again, and tried to listen with fresh ears. What I noticed was how literary it was—not in the canonic sense (though any album including lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Billie Holiday, and Cole Porter probably is that) but in the methodological one: West worked, to an unusual degree, from the words on the page, and based her music on the meaning that they, rather than the notes, described.

Consider her treatment of “If I Only Had a Brain” as a ballad. There’s a small industry among jazz vocalists of rendering fast songs lugubrious, but West’s introspective lament feels right, and one needs only to look to Yip Harburg’s lyrics to see why: “I would not be just a nothin’,” the song goes, “my head all full of stuffin’ / My heart all full of pain.” Who ever thought this was an upbeat number? In taking the song back down to its text, West was among those to peel away its commercial packaging, refocussing attention on what the lyrics conceal in plain sight. Her version of Alan Bergman and Lew Spence’s “Nice and Easy”—“Hey, baby, what’s your hurry? / Relax and don’t you worry / We’re gonna fall in love”—is just that: low-key and confident, a musical experience drawn from the document of the text.

A possibility that music can lie where words safeguard the truth—that a tempo marking can conceal, rather than reveal, the meaning of a song—is an odd suggestion from a singer. But, then, authority in art is a chimeric quality to begin with: most music doesn’t reach beyond its decade, and most words return to the earth before the paper or the pixels that delivered them. When something good lasts, it’s because some form of subjectivity—a point of view, a self—has managed to carry successfully through time. (“Books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book,” E. B. White, who was usually right about both people and books, noted.) In American music, that transmission of self happens most of all through language in forms ranging from the spiritual to the blues, jazz, folk, gospel, country, musical theatre, rock, hip-hop: it’s the music of sufferance, commiseration, and forbearing wit, which is to say it is rooted in verbal, ahead of musical, connection. To take American songs seriously, West realized in “Temptation”—to find the person hiding in them—is to take them at their word.

The idea that creative work could contain an entire self without being, in the informational sense, about self, was a thrilling and a frightening revelation for me at thirteen, and it remains that way for me now, as an adult daily facing the blank page with the task of depositing myself there. The process of becoming, it turns out, never gets much easier. West is now sixty-three, still trying to make it as a singer. I’m a grownup, still drinking cappuccinos over jazz. Time gusts only in one direction, but some work can carry sideways through it—from there to there and there—like a thread line on a spider’s web that wobbles in the wind but won’t blow down. “Temptation” is one of those lines. Twenty-five years later, it’s worth marvelling at how strong and how formative those bonds across the mess of time can be. ♦

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