Steve Ross: C’mon and Hear: An Irving Berlin July 4th Celebration

| June 28, 2017

Steve Ross

C’mon and Hear: An Irving Berlin July 4th Celebration

Birdland, NYC, June 26, 2017

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Steve Ross

A themed evening with Steve Ross is as illuminating as it is entertaining. With cards-face-up fidelity, original embellishment, and the kind of indisputable panache that never sacrifices emotion for sophistication, Ross tonight offers a high-spirited celebration of Irving Berlin, “Russia’s best export after vodka.”

As exemplified by a jaunty “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Ross’ lucid musicianship, aided by the excellent Jered Egan on bass, is more effective than a full band in capturing the intention of Berlin’s of-the-people oeuvre. The pianist effortlessly delivers light, tangy ragtime. Selective history and anecdotes act as bridges, not filler.

Composer/lyricist Israel Isidore Baline (1888 -1989) fled a Russian pogrom, landing on New York’s Lower East Side. After stints as a singing waiter and song plugger, he began to write in earnest, catching ragtime fever. Ross describes the genre as “rhythms that came up the Mississippi to sit on marching tempo,” adroitly demonstrating with “Play a Simple Melody.” We’re treated to excerpts from several vivacious songs, including a percussive “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam”’ that appears to have fancy footwork.

“I Love a Piano,” one of our host’s favorites, is as dancey as it gets. Ross is able to make exuberance eloquent. Higher octaves arrive quiet-difficult and effective. “Mandy” is equally infectious. “…so don’t you linger…” he sings boyishly, pointing at/warning the audience. Gestures come easily tonight, drawing us in.

“When I Lost You,” Berlin’s first ballad, written upon the devastating, post-honeymoon death of his bride, is melodic, yet profound in its grief:”I lost the sunshine and roses/I lost the heavens so blue/I lost the beautiful rainbow/I lost the morning dew….” “Say It Isn’t So”—moving like chiffon and marabou, and a smoky, sotto voce “How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky)” show mastery of melancholy ardor. Restrained performance is affecting.

Apocryphally sharing a taxi, Alexander Korda asked Berlin if he’d written “the war song we need,” whereupon the writer began to concoct “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow” in his head. It’s easy to imagine stay-at-home women and posted soldiers’ poignant reactions. “Blue Skies” follows with a hopeful, upbeat arrangement influenced by the performer’s classical training. Crossover occurs several times during the show, adding richness and originality surprisingly without undue weight. Ross calls the honoree “a nighttime boy,” pointing out that the iconic “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” was eminently personal.

Several compositions from the 1920s and 1930s, when Berlin was writing for Broadway as well as for vocalists, emerge sentimental, not dusty. Ross’ uncanny empathy spotlights the timelessness of lyrics carried by tunes like crocheted antimacassars. “…I’ll be loving you, ‘Always’” drifts down like a feather. George Kaufman, recognizing too much of a commitment, suggested instead “I’ll Be Loving You, Thursday.” In fact, he wrote a full parody. Where else would one be privy to this gem but at a Steve Ross show?

We next hear the hip-swinging, consonant-dropping “Harlem on My Mind”—replete with wah-wah—inspired by Josephine Baker, but far from her own inclination; “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” a shoulder-shifting, hotsie-totsie number popularized by Al Jolson, here deftly festooned with excerpts from “Swanee”; and a rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” that “paired Berlin’s common touch with Fred Astaire’s acquired sophistication…(much like Ross’ own.) It’s interesting how it all worked out. That’s our country, you see.”

A rousing version of “Let Yourself Go” rides the tails of this Follow the Fleet number, beginning as slo-mo “jazz hot.” Exploratory treatment of the song in conjunction with its predecessor resembles that of a concerto. The astonishing arrangement ratchets up to speedy, rhythmic insistence and back with numerous riffs between. “Relax!” the performer intones with uber sangfroid.

Continuing in Astaire mode, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sparkle with romance. “…Dance with me…” he invites us with a sweeping gesture of inclusion. Songs we take for granted arrive like haunting truths rather than polished insouciance. How does he do that? Ross’ encore is, unexpectedly, “God Bless America.” Many stand. We all sing. It’s quite a moment.

“Mr. Berlin has made our Christmases white, our skies blue, and our hearts young.”

(All unattributed quotes are by Steve Ross.)

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Category: Cabaret Reviews, New York City, New York City Cabaret Reviews, Regional

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