Jason Brock pops a cork at Society Cabaret

Jason Brock 3

If you only know Jason Brock from his appearances on Simon Cowell’s X Factor televised singing contest and flashing light show, you only know part of Jason Brock. Sure, he’s a fabulous showman with a distinctive sense of style and a killer set of pipes. But he’s not all sequined flash and bravura attitude. He’s also a serious singer and a thoughtful performer who knows how to punctuate his performances with sparkle and sass to ensure that his delightful personality and penchant for improvisation come shining through.

Brock, who makes San Francisco his home, made it into the Top 12 during season two of The X Factor and is now making the cabaret rounds. This weekend he was at Society Cabaret in the Hotel Rex, the intimate cabaret room that feels like a cross between a piano bar, someone’s living room and a hip New York salon. In front of a packed crowd, Brock, with Dwight Okamura at the piano, spent nearly two hours putting his personal stamp on some standards and even made time for a special guest.

With songs like “Old Devil Moon” and “Misty” at the top of the set, it seemed Brock was paying special tribute to Diane Schuur, with similar vocal stylings (even a similar look), and it was nice when Brock, wearing a black suit and many layers of chains around his neck, acknowledged his love for the jazz singer. But then, with “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, Brock stepped into his own spotlight with a jazzy take on the show tune that Richard Rodgers (a stickler for remaining true to the original melody) would have disliked, but come on. We’ve heard this song a million times. Brock’s sly version even made the tune a little bit sexy (no easy feat).

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Brock can belt like nobody’s business (“All That Jazz”), but he can also slip comfortably into a ballad as he did with “Bein’ Green” and “Lush Life.” He lost the emotional thread of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” part way through and never quite regained it, but that probably means there are better ballads for him than this one.

Slipping easily into R&B, pop, jazz and even gospel, Brock turned “Glory of Love” into a showstopper and proved he can really swing on “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

Special guest Kim Nalley, playing with 21-year-old piano wunderkind Joe Warner, offered a stylish pair of tunes: “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “I Got Rhythm” before Brock joined her for a stunning (and unrehearsed) duet on “Summertime.”

The main set came to an end with “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon” before Brock’s encores of “New York State of Mind” (the song that got him onto The X Factor) and a heartfelt “What a Wonderful World.” But Brock’s fans weren’t satisfied with just two encores. Even though he didn’t have anything prepared, Brock appeased the clamoring crowd with a totally improvised (and a cappella) medley of Whitney Houston hits including “How Will I Know,” ‘”One Moment in Time,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “The Greatest Love of All.” Nalley jumped back on stage to provide some back-up vocals, and it was like fireworks after a baseball game.

Brock will soon make his debut at New York’s 54 Below, but he promises to be back for an all ’80s show at Martuni’s.

[bonus videos]

If you’re new to the Jason Brock experience, these videos should help:

Society Cabaret’s next show features Barry Lloyd but the Jan. 25 show is sold out. For a complete calendar (including a few “Showtune Sundays”!), visit www.societycabaret.com. For tickets call 415-857-1896.

Wesla Whitfield’s dazzling Street of Dreams

Wesla and Mike

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill are better than ever, which is saying something as they’ve been better than most for quite some time. The singer and her husband, the arranger/pianist, haven’t been seen regularly here in San Francisco since they moved north a few years back, but anytime they return is cause for attention and celebration, especially when they’re part of the auspicious launch of a new cabaret room.

The lovely space is called Society Cabaret, and it’s tucked away in the Hotel Rex, right off Union Square. It’s not a room designed for performance, but it’s more than suitable, charming even with its comfy-but-elegant New York-style decor, including red tablecloths on little cocktail tables. There’s a small stage area big enough for piano, bass and drums (Whitfield’s set up). Lighting is rudimentary (the room itself never really gets dark), but the key thing is the sound, which is just fine – could be louder, could be warmer, but it’s nice and clear.

How wonderful to have a truly intimate, unfussy cabaret space where you feel comfortable, unpressured and free to just enjoy the music. (There’s no two-drink minimum, but food and drink are available, of course.)

And what music. Whitfield’s new show is Street of Dreams, another of her “I have to call it something, so why not this?” creations that’s simply a reason to sing more than a dozen great tunes and do a little bantering with the band and the audience.

Wesla and Mike

Backed by the inimitable Greensill, whose arrangements are pure gold, and basisst John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano on drums – a stellar trio by any standard – Whitfield spends 80 blissful minutes doing what she does best: bringing out the best of the Great American Songbook.

Highlights in this set include a heart-melting “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” a swingin’ “The Gypsy in My Soul” and a version of Sondheim’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” that is a master class in how underplaying the emotion of a song can maximize its impact.

Greensill does a little singing in this show as well, which is a wonderful addition to the act. He sings an old chestnut called “When the Morning Glories Wake Up in the Morning,” then he and Whitfield duet charmingly on “Little Tin Box” from Fiorello. Other show tunes include “On the Other Side of the Tracks” from Little Me and “Show Me” from My Fair Lady.

Whitfield unearths Cole Porter’s 1941 “Dream Dancing” as a romantic gem and gives the Street of Dreams concept a workout with a lustrous “When You Wish Upon a Star” and a show-ending medley of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” She also dusts off “Love Is a Necessary Evil,” a sly tune (by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal) that features the lyric, “Who needs it? No one but the whole human race.”

There were a few bobbled lyrics on opening night (Porter’s “You’re the Top,” complete with reference to King Kong’s knob, was initially irksome but ultimately conquered), and Greensill joked, “We used to be nervous on opening nights…we used to be much better on opening nights.” But truth be told, these guys are pros. Opening night was delightful – a dream you might even say.

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill’s Street of Dreams continues through Sept. 15 at Society Cabaret in the Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$75 (no minimums). Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.societycabaret.com.