Paula West is as reliable as the main character in her signature tune “The Snake.”
In the clever Oscar Brown Jr. song, when the reptile bites his benefactor, leaving her to die after she has saved him, he tells her: “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Of course, The City’s premier jazz singer’s constancy is of a positive nature, not fatal; at Tuesday’s opening of her six-week engagement at the Rrazz Room, she was predictably delightful.
Backed by pianist-arranger George Mesterhazy, bassist Barak Mori, smiling drummer Jerome Jennings and guitarist Ed Cherry, the velvet-voiced vocalist served up the smart type of set list for which she’s famous. She’ll introduce listeners to old songs they may not have known, or she’ll sing a familiar tune in a way that makes audiences feel like they understand it for the first time.
The extraordinary singer has classy followers, including Willie Brown, Wilkes Bashford and Trevor Logan, former talent booker at the Plush Room, where she got her start; all were in the house, along with local jazz singers Denise Perrier, Clairdee, Maye Cavallaro and Carly Ozard, eager to hear the master at work.
West seems in a bluesy mood in 2010, singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Bread and Gravy,” Lil Green’s “Romance in the Dark” and “Where Flamingos Fly,” best known from Peggy Lee’s and Helen Merrill’s versions.
She plays with rhythm in a calypso-reggae take on Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” (she also sings his “Maggie’s Farm”) and the New Orleans-inspired “Iko Iko.”
Her Cole Porter tune this year is “Nobody’s Chasing Me,” showcasing both her and the composer’s brilliance with lyrics.
The closing tunes are Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Sir Jones?” and “My Romance” as well as the rousing “The Music Goes Round and Round.”
While West briefly joked that she “lightened up” for the last part of the show, she and her listeners know that she doesn’t have to resort to tricks to get people coming back. Her annual residency steadfastly remains among San Francisco’s most fulfilling and rewarding artistic experiences.
IF YOU GO
Where: Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes March 14
Tickets: $35 to $45; $65 on Feb. 14
Contact: (866) 468-3399 or www.therrazzroom.com