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."

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, Jimi Hendrix and, more specifically, Mark Murphy. 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'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." 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 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, Jon Hendricks, and Sarah Vaughan, 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, 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 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 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."

"Songs are stories, aren't they? I'm an actor, a comedian, I perform. I can't just stand there with my eyes closed and hope that the audience is going to come with me, just like that. I'm not a cabaret singer either. ... I just like to show people the songs, really. I'm also a jazz singer, so the music is as important as the lyric. Every single song I've recorded, I love."

Ian ShawShaw has recorded two albums devoted exclusively to single composers: Lifejacket (Linn Records, 2008), which featured his own songs, and the self-explanatory Drawn To All Things: The Songs of Joni Mitchell (Linn Records, 2006). Of the Mitchell covers album, Shaw says, "I was itching to do that album. It's been my best seller—Joni Mitchell fans love to buy every version of her songs. I gigged the album for two years in all sorts of performance formats, from me with a guitarist, me playing piano, to a full orchestra with Guy Barker arrangements of some of the songs. "Both Sides Now" is a song I'd always wanted to record. I think it's everyone's life song—beautiful, beautiful images."

Lifejacket, Shaw's album of his own songs, was "massive fun ... and really personal. That was me doing my Joni album ... my heart-on-sleeve thing which I probably won't do again for a long time. Those songs provided fodder for a great tour, because I could combine songs with stories and a little bit of stand-up, and it worked beautifully. People responded well to those songs. I don't think it sold particularly well, though."

Shaw describes Somewhere Towards Love as an album of "skewered love songs." It's proving to be a commercial success, and he attributes much of this success to one man: London radio DJ Robert Elms. "He plays a track just about every other day on his show, listened to by 800,000 Londoners. It takes just one person to pick up on an album and it makes such a difference. He plays the title track [Shaw's sole composition on the album]—that's what people ask for."

The lyrics to "Somewhere Towards Love" are printed on the album sleeve. It seems to be a very personal and intensely honest track, with its references to "a half-remembered friend" and "the child you didn't father." Shaw agrees: "Yeah, it is. I didn't want to do what I did on Lifejacket, where there are such obscure images that no one but my mother would know what they meant. In fact, the melody came first. ...The words came afterwards. That's quite odd, really, because normally I write the poem first, then the music afterwards. For that song, I wrote 20 verses, then picked four of them for the final version."

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