Steven Blane is a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele) hailing from New York City, as well as being a Universalist Rabbi and Cantor. His music ranges in style and genre, encompassing Americana, folk, rock and blues and jazz, amongst hints of other genres.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, Blane began writing a journal about his experiences and one of his lyrics was quoted in a Vanity Fair article. Since 2015, he has released nine albums and has been particularly prolific in the last six years, releasing an album a year, including this one. He has developed a sizeable fanbase, with some songs racking up big numbers on the major league streaming sites like Spotify.
This latest album, Songs For New York Lovers, consists of thirteen songs in the jazz/pop genre. The title is perhaps a playful nod to the classic Frank Sinatra album, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and has a similar high bar of composition and consistency.
The album’s opening track Autumn Song could almost be a track on that Sinatra album, a beautifully written and performed jazz ballad. Blane gives a skilful vocal performance in his rich baritone, aided and abetted by a group of superb musicians. It becomes immediately apparent that Blaine’s sophisticated songwriting style, which he brought to mastery on previous albums, is maintained here with aplomb. Aside from the exquisite arrangement and memorable melody, special mention should go to the effortlessly mellifluous tenor sax courtesy of Michael Johnson.
This Love Affair is the kind of moody, melancholy jazz/blues balladry that Blane does so well, the type of song you’d love to hear playing at a jazz bar at 2am. The intimate lead vocal conveys the confessional but pithy lyrics about desiring an affair with someone when already attached: “This love affair was never meant to be for I belong to someone else, it’s true…it’s my reality, a goddamn felony, I stand convicted of loving you”. A touching and deeply poignant song which will be highly relatable for so many.
Third song The Rabbi’s Tzitzit is a nice contrast, given an instant effusion of momentum by Frank Levatino’s insistent hi-hat shuffle. As Steven is a Rabbi cantor himself, songs reflecting his faith are an interesting aspect of his work. This one in particular showcases Blane’s Cole Porter-esque gift for wordplay and lyrical dexterity: “He’s dancing to the wisdom of the ages in the pages of his holy books, when passion often rages through the ages, this is where his spirit looks….”.
I Hurt Myself Today is another slightly unexpected but delightful twist, an upbeat polka in 2/4 full of exotic charm. At a succinct two and a half minutes, it’s a pocket gem of a song with a concise arrangement, pithy lyrics and a perfectly executed lead vocal from Blane. Whereas you can hear a lot of 40s/50s music influences in his work, this one brought to mind the 1920’s with a real Great Gatsby vibe.
Thanksgiving is a return to more familiar jazz/pop, another masterclass in this style of songwriting. Here, we find Blane and his band at the top of their game, all delivering stellar performances. Aside from the instantly hummable vocal melody, delivered with consummate ease, Kevin Hailey’s superb rolling bassline caught my ear, particularly. But everyone involved deserves great credit for creating a track most suitably described as “smokin’”.
The Muze is perhaps the most desolate and melancholy song on the album, embellished throughout by a richly melodic, wonderfully played piano part full of subtle nuance from Jack Glottman. Indeed, the whole band get to display their more soulful side, the double bass aching with feeling along with Michael Johnson’s moody sax. Lyrically, it captures the moment of heartbreak at the end of a troubled relationship that also served as artistic inspiration: “What will I do now my muse has gone? No one to hang my heartache on…no cross for me to bleed upon…”.
This is nicely juxtaposed by the jaunty jazz/pop of Champagne, which transports us back to the 20’s. The whole band cook up some real energy on this one, guaranteed to get the toe tapping. The vocal melody, especially the simple but instantly memorable title hook, is irresistibly catchy and hummable. Lyrically, it finds Blane at his most lighthearted and playful: “Let’s you and I go on the town tonight, dress up to the nines in black and white, rent a limousine, drive downtown to a scene where maître d’ is cordial and polite….”. Listen out for the fabulous, bluesy piano vamp at the end.
Shma is another song inspired by Steven’s Jewish faith, the title referring to what is considered the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith, “Hear, O’ Israel: the Lord is your God; the Lord is one”. This one features Steven on tightly strummed acoustic guitar, prominent in the mix, which gives it a different sonic texture to the rest of the album to this point. It also stands out for its passionate, vaulting vocal leaps and haunting, lilting melody. Another fine contrast to what precedes it.
Coffee And A Rose is a charming little song with a toe tapping swing, bringing us back to the more Sinatra/Cole Porter style that Blane has established as his signature sound. As ever, it is impeccably arranged throughout, from the descending double bass that provides the intro to the extended sax solo halfway through. After the earlier romantic turmoil on songs like The Muze, the romance on this one is delightfully bright and breezy: “Coffee and a rose this morning, crescent moon and stars last night…”.
Steven has romance on his mind once again on the lovely, skilfully crafted Juanita. One of the album’s longer tracks at over four minutes, it has a decidedly exotic Spanish vibe, as the title suggests! Here, you can pick up the influence of Leonard Cohen, one of Blane’s favourite songwriters. The earthy dry humour of the first verse certainly brought Cohen to mind: “I got messed up in a fight, red lights flashing bright…”. It builds to a beautiful chorus, Blane’s soaring croon matching the passion and poeticism of the words: “And even the roses blush when my senorita, my sweet Juanita walks by…”.
This Deja Vu is one of the album’s more low-key tracks. It has a real sophistication in the way the music conjures an air of mystery that perfectly mirrors the subject matter of the lyrics. It’s a song about meeting someone and feeling like you’ve met them before, a common experience amongst those who find themselves instantly in love with someone. The swung rhythm and exotic chord changes lend a hypnotic quality to the song, an understated gem.
Penultimate song The Ramble could almost be the title track, a sparkling piece of New York-infused jazz that finds the musicians in glorious form. Blane gives a characteristically charismatic performance with lyrics full of Cole Porter wordplay and wit: “Let’s take an amble through the ramble of Central Park, we can take a gamble and find our way out by dark…”.
The closing Wintertime has a similar warmth and charm, akin to standing by a fire in the depths of a snowy December. This one is in 6/8 and really swings with some very fine jazz drumming from Levantino, versatile piano full of harmonic subtleties and a blazing sax cameo. Blane saves the best till last in terms of vocal performance, the sustained high note at the end at an apposite way to close out proceedings.
Overall, Songs For New York Lovers is another superb album from the prolific Steven Blane. It maintains the very high bar set by his last one, The Met, and is arguably even better. There is not one dud moment amongst the thirteen tracks and Blane consolidates his position as a master of his chosen style. Backed by a cohort of gifted musicians who match his skills, the result is a joy from start to finish. Music connoisseurs worldwide should discover the songs of Steven Blane.