An American Singing About...

Photo credit: Ron Spivak

Steve Ross: An American in Paris

Birdland Jazz Club, NYC

October 1, 2018

Steve Ross took to the piano in front of a sold-out audience for An American in Paris, his show of both French and American songs. These songs about (or taking place in) the "City of Lights" had been written and/or sung by the greatest performers in French and American popular song culture. This presentation was, as per Steve's tradition of excellence, another superb offering from the man dubbed "The Crown Prince of New York Cabaret." Whatever Steve puts his voice and fingers to, takes on a fresh, original, and personal glow, yet retaining the pure essence of the original.

Steve commenced with a piano overture, which included, "I Love Paris," "Sous le Ciel de Paris," "I Will Wait for You," and closed this overture with a voice rendering of "Valentine"-- a song which Maurice Chevalier premiered in 1925, and which was to become the song most closely associated with him, his "Over the Rainbow" so to speak, (until the advent of Gigi).

The overture properly wet our appetite for the body of the show, which included songs and melodies by (or identified with) Charles Aznavour, E.Y. ("Yip") Harburg, Charles Trenet, M. Phillipee Gerard, Jacques Brel, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Steven Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Bob Merrill, and others. A great deal of material was covered in the nearly hour-and-a-half show, which -- via Steve"s informed pacing -- went by so quickly, that by the end I felt he had just begun.

After the overture, he opened the show proper with a spirited rendition of Aznavour's "Le Temp." This was more timely then I'd first thought, for at song's end he announced that Charles Aznavour, at 94, had passed that morning at his home at Mouriès in southern France -- hence the evening was rightly dedicated to him. Aznavour, was a titan of the French song, as a singer and a song writer, who I'd first seen when I was 18 in his initial Los Angeles appearance and has remained one of le plus bon singers in any language.

Steve then let out with two songs by Charles Trenet who, among a large body of work in France, is mostly known to Americans for only two songs: the romantic "I Wish You Love" ("Que Reste-t-il de Nous Mon Amours?," with English lyrics by Albert Askew Beach) which was sung by everyone; and "La Mer" ("Beyond the Sea") which was a monster hit for Bobby Darin in 1959, with lyrics by Jack Lawrence. Steve's gentle touch with these well-worn standards renders them anew.

Next was "Piano pour Piaf," Steve’s instrumental medley-tribute of the songs of "The Little Sparrow" -- which I found absolutely fascinating, even hypnotic. Uncannily, Steve distills the essence of each melody, but augments them with his own stylistic enhancements. This opened the opportunity, each time, for a fresh listening experience. We’ve all listened closely and enjoyed these melodies for decades -- and yet Steve Ross, skilled artist that he is, presents hitherto undiscovered nuances.

This medley included eight tunes: "La Foule" ("The Crowd") with music by Argentine composer Angel Cabrai; "Hymne à L'amour" ("Hymn to Love") with music by Marguerite Monnot; "La Goualante du Pauvre Jean" ("The Ballad of Poor John"), with music by Marguerite Monnot, and heard in the USA mostly as an instrumental called "The Poor People of Paris" (sometimes with lyrics that had nothing whatsoever to do with Poor John); "Padam Padam" with music by Norbert Glanzberg, (which has been described as a "maddeningly catchy" waltz and was recorded by Tony Martin with "maddeningly" atrocious lyrics); "L' Accordeoniste" ("The Accordionist") with music by Michel Emer, which was Piaf’s first million-seller; "La Vie en Rose" with music accredited to Piaf; and "Milord" also known as "Ombre de la Rue" (literally "Shadow of the Street") with music by Marguerite Monnot (recorded in America by Teresa Brewer and Cher, and in the U.K. by Frankie Vaughn.)

Jane Lapotaire, won a Tony award for her portrayal of "The Little Sparrow" in Pam Gems's 1981 Broadway play "Piaf." Although it included musical numbers, it was not a musical per se. Steve's "Piano pour Piaf" plays like something akin to the overture of an as yet un-produced full-blown Broadway or Westend musical -- one we'd love to see!. At this segment's closing, Steve got energetic with "Milord" with his bar room honkey tonk piano ending -- and his melding of elements from "La Vie en rose" with "Milord" was astonishing.

Steve moved forth with a plaintive version of "When the World Was Young" with music by M. Phillippe Gerard and the lyrics of Johnny Mercer; following with Jacques Brel's and Gerard Jouanesset's bombastic and many-worded "Jacky" ("La Chanson de Jacky"). Both the French and English lyrics by Mort Shuman run a-mile-a-second, in this first person account of a young, unpleasantly crude braggart. Steve luckily possesses the clear diction, stamina, and tonal range to produce an engaging performance of this verbal explosion. As an antidote to Jacky’s angst, he next sang Cole Porter's amusing and playful "The Tale of the Oyster," from 1927's Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, followed by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's "The Last Time I Saw Paris" a wistful remembrance of Paris prior to its 1940 occupation by the Germans. Exquisite selections from Lerner and Lowe's "Gigi" were next followed by the sad "Just a Gigolo," originally a 1929 Austrian-German song adapted into English by Irving Caesar in 1931 (and recorded by Bing Crosby and others). The sentiments of this song of longing and missed opportunity about "a Frenchmen, a hero of the war" was beautifully presented by Steve, who followed with Stephen Sondheim's "Ah, Paris" from his 1971 Broadway show Follies.

He then presented a lovely waltz-tempo song from the Broadway musical The Happiest Girl in the World, entitled "Adrift on a Star," with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (using music by Jacques Offenbach). The musical was based on Aristophanes play "Lysistrata," and ran a scant 98 performances in 1961. This song provided Vic Damone with a popular hit in the 1960s. It is one of my favorite songs and Steve certainly did it justice.

At this point you're probably thinking that this already sounds like two concert's worth of material -- and there was more to come. Such is Steve's charm and dexterity that this motto grande just flew by.

Next on the program was a seemingly unlikely -- yet successful -- joining of two songs. First, Jerry Herman's "Song on the Sand" from La Cage aux Folles, of which Playbill wrote, "It's hard to think of a love song more beautiful."  In a striking choice, he joined it with "One of Those Songs," which was a hit for Jimmy Durante, a master of elevating the pedestrian into art. It appeared on Durante's 1966 album of the same name, with words by Will Holt. The melody of "One of those Songs" was taken from a 1955 French instrumental recording entitled "Bal Chez Madame de Mortemouille" by Gerard Calvi, and apparently appeared in the 1959 Broadway musical, La Plume de Ma Tante (which was nominated for three Tony awards). In Steve's meld, both are about recalling a song, so the association is certainly warranted -- but who, other than Steve Ross would have made the connection and presented them in such a harmonious and complementary manner?

Steve next gave us the song "Mira," from the 1961 Broadway musical Carnival with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. Since attending the Kennedy Center's superb 2007 revival, this song has retained a special place in my heart. In the show, the song is sung by Lili, an orphan from the town of Mira, where everyone knew her name. Now she wants a taste of the big time, where everybody knows her name but this time "in lights." A sweet and sentimental song, and Steve served it up with his delicately placed light touch.

Enter the night's guest: Jean Brassard is a wonderful singer whom I first heard when Steve and he presented a show entitled French Lessons in Song in 2011 at the newly reconstructed Opera House in Hudson, New York. Mr. Brassard presented Jacques Brel's "La Valse à Mille Temps," which first appeared on Brel’s fourth album in 1959 (and was later released with English lyrics by Will Holt in 1966 as "Days of the Waltz," sung by Patti Page). Mr. Brassard began in English, then transitioned into the vibrant many-worded French lyrics. This song is show-stopping by nature, and Mr. Brassard gave it its full-blown due. Steve and Mr. Brassard followed with a touching and poignant duet rendering of the classic 1785 song, "Plaisir d'amour," with music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, and set to a poem by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian.

It would not have been a completely French night out in America without at least two songs from Cole Porter's 1953 musical Can Can. Hence we were presented with "C'est Magnifique" (with mandatory audience participation) which glided smoothly into a recall (this time with words) of "I Love Paris"--an instrumental which was included in Steve’s opening medley. What a lovely and appropriate manner with which to end the show!

Steve returned to encore with "Can Can," a song with arguably the most clever lyrics Porter had ever written.

After a night like this, and hearing the audience's outpouring of appreciation:  Mr. Ross, isn't clear that discerning music lovers can't get enough of you?

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