In a letter to Alexander Woollcott, Jerome Kern wrote that "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music… He is American Music." What better person to present the art of Irving Berlin than venerable singer and pianist Steve Ross, who presented this great American composer's work in a sterling evening entitled C'mon and Hear: An Irving Berlin July 4th Celebration, at the historical Birdland Jazz Club on Manhattan’s West 44th Street, where he shared the stage with seasoned bassist Jered Egan.
Steve deeply understands the art behind Berlin's voluminous body of work, in a manner unique to himself. His renderings of both well-known, lesser known, and even obscure Berlin songs are historically astute and performed in an exceedingly skillful manner which is at once serious and at the same time carefree. The word "skillful" may sound academic and dry, but Steve's show was anything but.
It is worth noting something that Sylvia Fine (mostly known as lyricist for her husband Danny Kaye), reiterated several times during her lectures on American musical theater: that songs from '20s, '30s and '40s musicals were known to most listeners by the pop versions, recorded long after such musicals ended their initial runs within Broadway shows or were first heard in films (Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, etc.). In their original context, she opined, such songs offered a melodically and lyrically richer experience. Steve's renderings, including his creative flourishes, offer Berlin's songs with that context very much present, and the result is absolutely absorbing and delightful.
Steve's selections run from 1911's international hit "Alexander’s Ragtime Band," on through to "Let's Go Back to the Waltz" from Berlin's Broadway swan song Mr. President in 1962, and a great deal in between including: "How Deep is the Ocean?," "Blue Skies," "Putting on the Ritz," and a host of others. (For an evolving list of Berlin's 1,250-or-so songs see Wikipedia) Steve's patter included copious amounts of historical and popular context, which set up each song to be heard freshly. His original takes on Berlin's well-known standards, again, all honoring the original material, were special highlights in an evening which was for me all highlights. For example: he took the usually relentless rhythmic high-spirited song "Let Yourself Go" from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Follow The Fleet, and slowed it down to a melancholy lament which was at first startling and then hypnotic. He finished the song with the rousing up-tempo hoopla familiar to Astaire/Rogers fans which brought the standing-room-only house down.
As much as I am tempted, I will eschew addressing how Steve's playing and singing did justice to each of the thirty-six songs he presented. (This is a review not an exegesis!) I will though mention "Cohen Owes me Ninety-Seven Dollars" from 1915, in which a merchant on what appears to be his death bed, asks his son to collect a debt from Cohen so that he can go to his peace with serenity. The debt is collected and a speedy recovery ensues. (Who knew?)
I have attended several of Steve's performances over the last decade, and whatever age this great performer might be, he always comes off as something of a puckish teenager, brimming with both youthful exuberance and a kind of fresh-faced seriousness of a young man just launching his career. It is a pleasure to behold him holding forth behind the piano, with a commanding presence that chronologically younger performers should envy and admire (and emulate).
For those who love the art of the American popular song, a Steve Ross show is an absolute must.