by Alix Cohen…
A few years ago, at a time when veteran artists often adjust octaves and bow to limitation, Steve Ross did the opposite, expanding performance range. He did so even further at Birdland Theater on October 23. Vocal latitude and control allowed a natural tenor to confidently rise while quietude emerged without a quiver. Ross was vivacious, relaxed, excelled at several anecdotes, and as expressive as I’ve seen him. The packed room appreciated every flourish and nuance. Two encores didn’t seem sufficient.
“I Wanna Be Seen With You” (Bob Merrill/Jule Styne), “Comes Once in a Lifetime” (Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jule Styne), and “Shine on Your Shoes” (Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz) danced in spirited and playful, the last with a start-stop tap tempo. The club erupted in grins. “I have missed you very much,” Ross said almost under his breath. Ned Washington/Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” was sigh worthy. It’s easy to fall a little in love with this man.
From who else would we be treated to Eddie Cantor’s “Hungry Women” : Hungry women, hungry women/I feed em’ and weep/They never eat cheap/All those meal hounds/Eat like real hounds…and Irving Berlin’s vaudeville “Cohen Owed Me 97 Dollars,” sung with tongue firmly in cheek and ersatz Yiddish inflection.
A self-avowed unreconstructed Francophile, Ross felt free to offer Charles Trenet’s “La Mer” in French because “Looking at the room I can see you are all riddled with sophistication.” In the same wistful vein, “among my own few lyrics” is Ross’ “Whenever I think of Paris” (with Barry Day): Whenever I think of Paris/My heart is not my own/I’m hunted by all those magic times/The city was ours alone…Both evocative.
Written by “George Gershwin and his lovely wife, Ira,” “Sweet and Lowdown” arrives as if conjured from the 1920s, line of satin-clothed chorines and all. The same can be said for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Irving Berlin.) Ross’ original arrangement and brio imbue his sophisticated take with cinematic visions.
The requisite Cole Porter medley (nobody does it better) is variously buoyant, melancholy and insouciant; an instrumental version of “Begin the Beguine” romantic, moon-lit. When was the last time you thought of “I Get a Kick Out of You” as conversational?
Songs of gravitas fare just as well. Maury Yeston’s “In a Very Unusual Way” finds the artist submitting to love with gratitude and surprise. “My Circle of Friends” (Carol Hall) and “Old Friend” (Gretchen Cryer/Nancy Ford) are contemplative and moving. In a way, Ross is addressing his audience.
An animated duo of Cole Porter’s “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “I Happen to Like New York” are infectiously exuberant. Ross’ coda, “This Moment” (John Wallowich) closes the show with a metaphoric lump in the artist’s throat – and ours.
Steve Ross is in top form.
Back On the Town
Birdland Theater 315 West 44th Street