In his Gotham cabaret debut, 17-year-old John Stevens croons the old ones with a swinging savvy and romantic allure that belies his age. A light baritone, the “American Idol” finalist sings with good intent and a great deal of confidence. His diction is clear and clean, and his boyish charm is a winning factor.
If he has yet to develop a swagger, Stevens certainly has a sense of swing and a firm grip on the pop songs that shaped the last century. It’s generally believed that one has to have lived life to sing convincingly of deep devotion and of the sweet sorrows of love lost. That might be true, but this young man has been listening and learning all his life. The Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “I Have Dreamed” falls a tad short of the necessary passion, yet he nicely reveals the sweet simplicity of the 80-year-old Gus Kahn lyric “It Had to Be You.”
Stevens confesses to being a huge fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, and the inspiration is evident in his choice of such standards as “Come Fly With Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
“Someone to Watch Over Me” features the kind of syrupy tenor sax solo by Kurt Stockdale that once prompted Sinatra to quip, “You wanna meet Monday and pick out the furniture.”
There’s also an homage to the memory of Ray Charles with a soulful “You Don’t Know Me,” braced by a gospel-flavored piano solo by musical director David Cook. Bobby Darin is remembered with “Oh! Look at Me Now.” The songs are included in Stevens’ debut CD, “Red,” due in stores next week.
“I’m lucky,” muses Stevens as he swings into “All of Me.” “I’m 17 and I have my own band!” The singer has the luxury of a crack unit that romps and swings with a supportive drive that would make most any singer sound good.
Trumpeter Ravi Best adds a growling muted-trumpet solo for “My Blue Heaven” and punctuates “I Only Have Eyes for You” with the sweet phrasing associated with the memorable Harry Edison.
John Stevens has picked up the gauntlet, and the Great American Songbook appears to be in safe hands for a new generation to embrace.