Foundry 616, July 8
If a carnation could sing it might sound something like Steve Ross: light, mellifluous and guileless. His was never a big voice, but nor has the New York cabaret singer/pianist lost much power or range now he is of a certain age. Suave, agile and accurate, it is the perfect instrument to flutter across the multisyllabic wit of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Eddie Cantor and the rest.
A Steve Ross show winds back the clock and one’s cares simultaneously. The bottle-green velvet dinner jacket he sported was actually tailored for Coward, and you could swear that many of the classic songs were tailored for Ross, himself. Where so many contemporary singers, whether of jazz or cabaret, delve into this repertoire to show off themselves, Ross does it show off the genius of the writing. He slides beneath the skin of each piece and spins us back down the years to a world of sharp wordplay and aesthetics dominated by elegance. Even unrequited love could be made elegant in that between-the-wars era central to this repertoire.
In singing sad or tender songs Ross, rather than becoming an actor manipulating the listener’s emotions, lets the lyric do the work, while he ever so subtly teases the phrasing and the weighting of words. Two more recent compositions, La Fanette (Brel) and 99 Miles From LA (Hammond/David), stood out in this regard, the latter attracting some of his most affecting piano accompaniment.
He deftly structured the placement of and balance between love songs and amusing ones, delivering both with equal charm – a quality that for Ross is not varnish but the very furniture of his oeuvre. One of his funniest conceits was to sing My Favourite Things as if it had been written for The Threepenny Opera: slow, emphatic and wis ze hint of menace.
Tiny flaws have crept into his once pristine keyboard articulation, and his instrumentals could flirt with being twee or overwrought: properties that would never dare invade his singing.