By James Hale | Published September 2019
Search singer Steven Herring’s debut recording for a tinge of irony, a touch of nostalgic posturing; you won’t find it. What you will find is a vocalist unafraid to wrap his weighty baritone around 80-year-old lyrics and musicians who have jumped off the speeding bullet train of the 21st century to embrace a gauzy, scarcely moving sonic landscape.
Over and above his operatic voice, Herring gets full marks for sticking to the script. Most artists who reach back this far for material will shake things up with an original interpretation or a little-heard song that will have you scratching your head. Not Herring; he’s all in here, and he takes modernist cornet player Kirk Knuffke, one of Brooklyn’s brightest lights, and tenorist Stephen Riley along with him, encouraging them to play with a warmth and attention to detail that’s far out of favor.
Still, Herring is a classically trained singer, not a Sinatraesque barfly, so his vowels remain pear-like and his pitch even. You can never escape the reality that this is a singer performing, rather than living, these songs, as beautiful as they are. But you won’t likely find the lyrical beauty of Livingston and Evans’ “Mona Lisa” on better display than it is here.
Elsewhere, on “That Old Black Magic” and “The Girl From Ipanema,” the perfection of Herring’s delivery seems ill suited to the wordplay or harmonic turns of the material, but the band never fails him.
Herring, Knuffke and pianist Russ Lossing tackled a more diverse bag of compositions on last year’s Witness with mixed results. Their tight focus here pays off.
Introducing Steven Herring: That Old Black Magic; They Didn’t Believe; Begin The Beguine; In The Wee Small Hours; They Can’t Take That Away From Me; Mona Lisa; The Girl From Ipanema; They Say It’s Wonderful; Poor Butterfly; The Nearness Of You. (64:50)
Personnel: Steven Herring, vocals; Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Stephen Riley, tenor saxophone; Russ Lossing, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; Billy Drummond, drums.