By Peter Haas
Cole Porter said it in song: “There’s nothing, when you’re out, like being fanned … by the leader of a big-time band.”
He was proved correct by Steve Ross, who has been entertaining his own fans for decades as a singer, pianist and guardian of the Great American Songbook. The evidence: Steve’s one-night engagement at Birdland, on May 1, playing and singing a program of the civilized world’s great songs, backed by the energetic ten-piece Yale All-Stars Band.
The evening was a master class in masterpieces of popular music, as only Steve interprets them. Featured were classics primarily by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins – with emphasis on numbers that had featured Fred Astaire – as well as selections by Noel Coward. The theme was romance, with such songs as “Love is Just Around the Corner,” “No Strings,” “These Foolish Things,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and – with Steve citing Ethel Merman as “his muse” — “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Anything Goes.”
The performances were well diversified. On some numbers, Steve played and sang with just a bass back-up, as he did with a medley from the Astaire/Rogers film, “Swingtime,” spotlighting such Berlin classics as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up” and “Bojangles from Harlem.” Other favorites included “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (by Steve’s admission, one of his own all-time favorite songs); a romantic, moving version of “I Concentrate On You,” plus Porter’s tributes to New York, “Manhattan” and “I Happen to Love New York.”
On several other songs, the band joined in, with always-tasteful lilting arrangements (but sometimes overpowering Steve’s singing.)
Nevertheless, the band accompaniment seemed to give Steve a freedom that his solo performances don’t customarily offer. “As the group backed me up,” Steve told this writer, “I had a split second to take a breath and a break from playing, and then to come back in with a bit more energy and a chance to improvise.” Two piano solos by Steve proved the point as he capped the evening with “True Love” and “Begin the Beguine” – the latter alone worth the price of admission.