When a journalist covers an artist over time, there’s one thing that inevitably happens and another that should. Over the years, changes in performance are observed. This can mean anything from vocal ability to choice of material to interpretation. The second element of any review is what’s going on in the there and then, at the show about which he/she is writing.
In the last few years, I’ve noted that Steve Ross’s voice has gained range and firmness. Confidence is apparent in higher tenor notes, longer phrases, flexibility. Ross has also opened up to us. He’s more playful, braver. Theatrical recitation of lyrics is a fairly new aspect of shows as is playing characters. Signature droll wit appears looser. Ballads seem darker, more personally approached.
Oh there’s no cure like travel /To help you unravel /The worries of living today… (Cole Porter) Ross begins buoyantly. Then, suddenly, rising from the piano bench, “Before I continue, there’s a very important question I want to ask you…Why do the wrong people travel?… Noel Coward’s wry lyrics are dramatized rather than sung. With deadpan delivery, Ross appeals to us as fellow sophisticates.
The artist assumes his audience’s worldliness (aloud) several times this evening, yet, at the half century marker of Manhattan residency, he manages to elicit laughter and to move those who’ve heard some of these songs for countless years. Part of this is due to arrangements that seem to gift wrap lyrics, part is due to Ross’s in-the-moment delivery. Tonight’s show is based on a 1998 CD of the same name (a mere $55.00 and change online) from which it garners its frame -the romance of, and in travel.
We hear familiar Coward choices featuring Italy and England. “A Bar on The Piccolo Marina” arrives with a lengthy rolled ‘r’, a growled ‘signorina’, a drunken, slurred, ‘just who do you think you are?!’, and an exaggerated baritone …’Funiculi, funicula, funnic-yourself!’ showcasing Ross’s burgeoning sense of theater. For the oom pah pah/music hall “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown”, he injects a dash of Cockney. Also from over the pond, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Eric Mashwitz/ Manning Sherwin) sighs forth with just a bit of upper scale piano trill.
“When Yuba Plays the Rumba on The Tuba” (Herman Hupfield) is a tart, tongue-twister carried off with brio: …this chap’d rather grapple/With his oompah-oompah-oompah/They prefer it to the booba-doopa-doopa…Apparently a group called The Comedian Harmonists offered a comeback called “Der Onke! Bumba aus Kalumba Tanzt Nur Rumba” which Ross sings in German without dropping a syllable.
“Odeon”, a piano piece by Ernesto Nazareth who thought of his music as “Brazilian tango,”is played with muscular snap. It’s easy to imagine sharp turns, flaring nostrils, whipped heads, locked eyes.
In the early 1930s, at the end of Berlin’s Weimar Republic, several important German and Austrian composers emigrated to America and made names for themselves here. Mischa Spoliansky had composed “Morphium” for a dancer in 1920. Decades later, Michael Steffan added the lyric to what became “Midnight.” One of this evening’s unquestionable highlights, the number conjures George Grosz and Otto Dix paintings of a shuddering, broken society. It’s beautiful and dissolute. Ross channels the era with marvelous subtlety. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Memories” (from Cats) is briefly woven into a denouement.
Vienna is represented by by two ebullient waltzes. The second, “Merry Widow Waltz” (Lorenz Hart/Frans Lehar), is so well known, Ross has us all singing La, La, La, La under his lyrics. The club breaths as one. Songs by Charles Trenet, in French, preface “Piano Pour Piaf” i.e. Ross doesn’t sing Edith Piaf, he plays her. The medley is enticing, lavish, from wrenching anthem to piano-roll brio.
Selections from Cole Porter, Ross’s “favorite Episcopalian composer,” also feature his love affair with France. “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “I Happen to Like New York” then display Porter in this city at both the writer and the performer’s relaxed, urbane best.
Ross tells us that we, the audience,constitute his longest relationship, perhaps an ultimate love affair. Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s “On My Way to You” embodies the sentiment. It’s simply beautiful.
Another accomplished show by Steve Ross, an essential and gifted purveyor of this endangered art.
The lighting of this show was particularly deft and should be noted.
Steve Ross: Travels with My Piano
Birdland June 4, 2018