The Song Is You (With Grace and Gratitude)
by Alix Cohen
I hear music when I look at you…Steve Ross begins singing from the club floor. Dapper in what was once Noel Coward’s (really) green velvet smoking jacket and a red bow tie, he wends his way to the piano. What is mine, dear, will be yours/When the sun shines and when it pours…My sense of humor, my disposition, my rosy future/ I’ll share it all with you…(Irving Berlin-“I’ll Share It all With You.”) Bright and bouncy the song twirls, dips and time-steps into Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh’s “Exactly Like You.” It’s a light tap (dance) with a wink.
Ross is singing to loyal fans enthusiastically packing Birdland, those who return and return buoying and supporting meticulous efforts. The performer deeply loves his art and is frankly grateful for the opportunity to share it. “E.M. Forster’s encouragement to us? Only connect.”
He imbues “Just in Time” (Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jule Styne) with sincerity rather than being flip. “Time After Time” (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne) showcases a refreshed ability to hold shifted octaves and croon. A lovely “Time in a Bottle” (Jim Croce) rides undulating melodic waves with Jered Egan’s bass thrumming shadows.
Two songs in which lyrics were not written by lyricists include a droll “How Much I Love You” (Ogden Nash/Kurt Weil) during which Ross purveys his impeccable deadpan delivery (oh, if this could only be taught) and “It Never Was You” (Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weil) which is alive with meaning, elevated by an unvarnished balladeer.
In the first vein, we also hear Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Ross not only brings innate elegance and “gets” the similes, but musically varies the verses. In the second, the songwriter’s “Ev’rything I Love,” might easily sound like a chestnut, but instead is treated with respect and unabashed feeling. The ability to communicate both wry pastiche and haunting emotion is much like being both right and left brained and equally as rare.
Surprises include the rarely performed “Unusual Way” (Maury Yeston from Nine), a beautiful arrangement with sober, palpable vibrato and whispered finish, a lilting “I’ll Never Say No to You” (Meredith Wilson from The Unsinkable Molly Brown-in tribute to Tammy Grimes), and Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” soulful, tender, and rather dignified.
“As Long As I Live” (Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen) playfully emerges as honky-tonk. Ross seems looser, having a good time. Melodic attitude ranges from barroom solo, to piano roll, to Charleston. Fun! “They Couldn’t Compare with You” (Cole Porter’s Jupiter addressing a bevy of goddesses) is up-tempo vaudeville; its inflection ripe perfection, on reflection, sheer confection. “Let Yourself Go” (Irving Berlin) morphs from jacked-up, hot swing, to slow-mo and back as if dancers were demonically possessed in their revels. Ross is nothing if not pianistically versatile. Transitions are seamless. Egan’s bass weighs in with brio.
Selections like Noel Coward’s ruminative “You Were There” and Alan and Marilyn Bergman/ Michel Legrand’s utterly romantic “On My Way to You” clearly express this evening’s theme. Both shimmer with fragile optimism. We end with a sing-along of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields.)
Steve Ross’s expression of love is the talent this artist generously continues to share, making both sides happy.
Photos by Steve Friedman
Birdland November 21, 2016
Venue Calendar: http://www.birdlandjazz.com/calendar/