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Ian Shaw: From Free Jazz to Noel Coward

Bruce Lindsay By

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Ian ShawIan Shaw is a jazz singer. This simple description is accurate—it's how Shaw refers to himself—but it falls well short of doing the man justice. Ian Shaw is one of the most distinctive, original and creative jazz singers on the scene: he is a talented pianist and songwriter with a knack for working with top-quality musicians, an ability to seek out and cover some of the finest songs in contemporary music, and a showmanship that ensures that his live performances can raise tears of laughter as well as tears of sadness.

Since the early 1990s, Shaw has released 11 albums as leader or co-leader—a diverse collection of recordings featuring songs from the Great American Songbook and from major writers such as Joni Mitchell and Nick Cave. No two albums share the same musicians or the same instrumentation: each one is a departure from its predecessor, yet Shaw's voice, the one ever-present element, makes them all distinctly recognizable as his own. Shaw's development as a musician is equally distinct and perhaps gives some clue to the way in which he works, mixing free jazz influences with comedy and piano bars.

Shaw grew up in Wales, and both his parents had a musical background. He began to learn the piano in a fairly standard fashion: "I did the Trinity College, London, piano course until I was 16. I did my 8 grades [examinations]." Some biographical sources state that Shaw studied at Trinity College, Dublin, but he's keen to emphasize the inaccuracy of this information: "I've never, ever, set foot in Trinity College, Dublin. ... Somebody made up this amazing biography of me, only half of which was true. The rest of it was so spectacularly detailed, but untrue. My father and my mother were both extremely musical. My father played trumpet and cornet and I started with piano and brass band. I was a precocious classical pianist brat. Then I came to London and did a music degree at King's College, which I passed, but not with flying colors. I did no work for three years, just went to jazz clubs, bought Miles Davis records and got pissed." Shaw laughs at the memory. "That was my formal training: I did composition and analysis. ... I got what I needed from it. After that I started gigging almost immediately, playing pubs and wine bars—playing piano but not singing. One of my first collaborators was a guy called John Miller, a good, swinging pianist who used to play with Van Morrison and was really into Frank Zappa and [the late English singer-songwriter] Nick Drake."

Early in his career, Shaw moved into an unexpected area for a budding jazz singer: "I did stand-up comedy with music for about four years. In fact, I did a comedy tour this year with [British comedians] Arthur Smith and Sandi Toksvig." The move into comedy may seem unusual, but Shaw's live shows are genuinely funny events, and it's easy to imagine him in a comedy club setting. Shaw's next move again put music center-stage, as he explains: "I met this guy called Jack Fallon. He was a Canadian bassist [who had settled in England after the Second World War] who played with the likes of Jack Teagarden and Lena Horne. In the '50s, he set up an agency which was still going into the '80s. I auditioned for him, and he sent me out to play piano bars around the world for three years. I'd play four sets a night. I bought all the Real Books and learnt all the standards. I learnt on my feet—well, on my piano stool."


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