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Interviews

Ian Shaw: From Free Jazz to Noel Coward

By Published: December 1, 2009
Ian ShawShaw refined his singing as he worked in piano bars, responding to requests for songs. On his return to the UK, he made another, typically self-effacing, decision: "I decided that I'd be better if I worked with a better pianist." Soon after, he began working with a trio and expanded his own musical knowledge. "I got into Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
, Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
and, more specifically, Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy
b.1932
vocalist
. I fell in love with his approach to singing and thought that I could do something similar. It was a revelation. By that time, I had a quartet [with John Parricelli on guitar] and I'd guested on a couple of albums. Then I did my first album under my own name, live at Ronnie Scott
Ronnie Scott
Ronnie Scott
1927 - 1996
sax, tenor
's"

Ian ShawThat album was Ghostsongs (Ronnie Scott's Jazzhouse, 1995). "Right in at the deep end," says Shaw, "but it still sells. I don't really sing like that anymore, but I went straight into it. There were bits of Betty Carter and [British free jazz vocalist] Phil Minton

Phil Minton
Phil Minton
b.1940
vocalist
." The influence of Minton is another unexpected aspect of Shaw's development, but he is not the only influence to come from the British avant-garde. Saxophonist Lol Coxhill
Lol Coxhill
b.1932
sax, soprano
also affected Shaw positively: "Lol Coxhill and I used to do duo gigs, and his playing really influenced my singing. He'd do a solo, then I'd do a solo with my voice sounding like his instrument. So rather than learning the bebop stuff, initially I started at the free end of jazz. However, I was obsessed with chordal structures and decided I needed to turn my work into something I could sustain."

The next group of singers to influence Shaw came from less unexpected quarters: he name-checks Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau
b.1940
vocalist
, Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks
b.1921
vocalist
, and Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, among others. "I got to work with quite a few: in fact I worked with Jon Hendricks again only last week [as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Ronnie Scott's Club]." In terms of technique, Shaw was particularly influenced by Madeline Bell
Madeline Bell
Madeline Bell
b.1942
vocalist
, whom he met while working in Spain. Bell has had a long and successful career as a session vocalist and as a singer in hit bands such as Blue Mink. She is now a close friend of Shaw's: "I love her and her sound," he declares. Blues singer Carol Grimes, with whom he guested on Lazy Blue Eyes (Offbeat Records, 1990), was another important influence for Shaw, who describes her as "a fascinating woman and a good friend."

This mixture of influences is unique, but not part of a plan on Shaw's part. "It's just what was around. I wasn't a jazz teenager. It's different now, with college jazz courses, but I never heard jazz in college. I had to go and look for it. I spent all my grant money in [London music shop] Dobell's. All my influences came to me purely by accident." This serendipitous jazz education also happened back home in Wales, where the singer's father worked as a furniture removal man and would often come home with boxes of unwanted records from house clearances. "He brought home 20 Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin

vocalist
albums one week," Shaw remembers. "All sorts of influences came my way."

By the mid '90s, Shaw was beginning to release his own albums, following on from Ghostsongs. The albums are characterized by their variety and unpredictability. On some, Shaw plays piano himself. On others, he uses guest pianists—Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
being one distinguished example, co-leading 1999's In A New York Minute (Fantasy). Most albums include songs from a range of writers, including Shaw, but they are not always composers who are immediately associated with jazz. Some recordings feature a variety of different musicians, while others use just three or four musicians across the entire album—2009 album Somewhere Towards Love (Splash Point Records) is a solo recording.

Shaw is happy to talk about all of his recordings, but not always in glowing terms: "I've done one crap album," he says with refreshing honesty, "called Taking It To Heart (Ronnie Scott's Jazzhouse, 1995), which is just diabolical." The singer does not blame label owner Scott for this failure: indeed, he has a great deal of respect for Scott. "He was really helpful. I was on his label for 4 years. He put together a great album—The Echo Of A Song (Ronnie Scott's Jazzhouse, 1996). I used to play Ronnie's club regularly, and we hit it off, saw eye-to-eye. He suggested doing an album of songs that I grew up with, and that's what we did. We did a lot of research and recorded in a simple context, and it worked really well."



Ian ShawAt around the same time as The Echo Of A Song, Shaw recorded an album of more contemporary material: Famous Rainy Day (EFZ Records, 1995). The album is planned for re-release on Splashpoint Records in 2010, which is clearly a source of great pleasure for Shaw: "The original record label went bust about six weeks after the album came out, so only about 5,000 copies were pressed. ... All these things come full-circle, though."



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