by Marilyn Lester
There are certain entertainers who arrive at a place where they can pretty much do no wrong. Steve Ross is one of them. He’s as impeccable at the piano as he is in his natty attire and in his cosmopolitan persona. His performances are a grand musicale of fluidity, with informative narrative flowing into song and back again. It’s like being washed in a glorious musical wave. In My Manhattan, a celebration of Ross’ 47 years in residence on this isle, the Ross effect was in full and delightful force.
Countless songs have been written about the city of New York; Ross curated an eclectic mix spanning well over a hundred years and covering a range of composers, moods and emotions. Beginning with a few bars of a soft and gentle “Give My Regards to Broadway” (George M. Cohan), the singer launched into the amusing “Don’t Monkey with Broadway” by his “favorite Episcopalian composer,” Cole Porter. It turns out that Ross is not only terribly articulate and sophisticated, but he’s also a pretty funny guy. He not only sings and plays, but his text is frequently droll, and when he sings a novelty song there’s an extra measured twist of wry.
The nostalgia tour of My Manhattan began in the way back when with a trio of oldies, “The Bowery Waltz” (1892, Percy Gaunt), “Sidewalks of New York” (1894, Charles B Lawlor/James W. Blak), and “The Streets of New York (In Old New York)” (1906, Victor Herbert). Moving ahead to the modern era, there were staples in Stephen Sondheim: “Broadway Baby and “Another Hundred People,” Rodgers and Hart: “ I’ll Take Manhattan,” with extended verses, and “At the Roxy Music Hall,” as well as Kander and Ebb’s “City Lights.” Ross also included the unexpected in Peter Allen’s “Six Thirty Sunday Morning” and David Ackles’ “Subway to the Country.” Over the course of the evening the tunes kept piling up, a tour de force of high-level performance covering a wealth of aspects of New York life. This is a challenging repertoire, but Ross knows the material like the proverbial back of his hand, as illustrated throughout the evening, including polished deliveries of Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths (Of the Ninetieth Floor)” and “Tuscaloosa’s Calling Me… But I’m Not Going” (Hank Beebe/Bill Heyer).
As for delivery, well, the common denominator of the singing pianist is the total package. Most of these “saloon singers” are stronger on playing than on singing. Ross has a pleasant voice, but what he does with it in execution and interpretation has been honed to stunning perfection over the years. His playing has always been masterful; if Ross had elected a career as a concert pianist he would most likely have succeeded. Add to his talents composer. “Manhattan Moon,” words and music by Ross, was wonderfully evocative and reminiscent of a Cole Porter song. Therefore, what better way to end a superb celebration of Manhattan than with Porter and his “says it all tune,” “I Happen to Like New York.” As an encore, coming full circle, “Give My Regards to Broadway” was launched into as a robust sing-along by an audience utterly gratified by this swell celebration of Steve Ross and the isle of Manhattan.
Steve Ross: My Manhattan, Monday, March 20, 2017 at 7 pm
Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th Street, 212-581-3080, www.birdlandjazz.com
Photo: Stacy Sullivan