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The Jazz Education of Ian Shaw

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A few notable exceptions aside, great jazz musicians are not born; they are created. Most young musicians start by absorbing the work of important influences and then, through practice and live performance, decide what to keep, what to modify and what to discard. Ultimately, originality is less a byproduct of inspiration and more the end result of a process of self-editing.

That has certainly been the case with the Welsh jazz vocalist Ian Shaw. Now in his late 30s, Shaw has developed into one of the most exciting and original jazz singers of his generation. An established fixture on the European jazz scene for several years, he has finally begun to draw some much-deserved attention in the United States. His stock should continue to rise thanks to the release of his latest CD, Soho Stories.

Despite the vocal jazz explosion of the last 10 years, the number of under-40 male jazz singers remains small. Shaw is baffled by the lack of competition, "I don't know why there aren't more blokes... Maybe it's something that comes back from the frocked tradition of the canaries in the '40s and '50s and maybe that hasn't quite left. Yet we've had Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole. Nobody's really taken on that or stepped into those shoes."

Shaw doesn't see himself filling that particular void. "I can't do that," he explains, "I'm a bit more exploratory of harmony." Although he has been influenced by a number of singers, Shaw cites Mark Murphy as his primary inspiration. "I love what Mark Murphy does. I've watched his gigs and listened to how he interacts with the band, playing with time." However, Shaw's debt to Murphy is more conceptual than say Kurt Elling's. Shaw has used Murphy's innovations more as a springboard than as a model for his own style.

Not the kind of singer who is simply content to allow jazz to happen around him, Shaw thrives on the challenge of improvisation. "I love to interact with just the bass, for example, or drums. The whole kind of tennis aspect of improvising over chord changes is what I enjoy." Shaw usually retains the lyrics when he improvises. "I'm not a huge scat singer," he says. Shaw's rhythmic comfort zone appears to include every gradation of tempo imaginable, and his daredevil manipulations of time and meter are simply startling. His emphatic phrasing owes more to Britain's tradition of blue-eyed Soul than it does to the Blues. However, Shaw has tempered his soul music influences with a jazz singer's rhythmic agility, musical discipline and capacity for understatement.

Shaw has an extraordinarily flexible voice with an attractive reedlike tone. A tenor in his middle register, he can dip down into a baritone and up into a falsetto. Unlike other singers who use falsetto, Shaw does not sacrifice the quality of his intonation for the drama of his upper register. "If I'm jumping through hoops I can get a top F," but he adds, "I wouldn't really because it sounds a bit horrible." Shaw also has excellent control over the dynamics of his voice and uses whispers and shouts as a form of musical punctuation. He has an uncanny ability to change directions without having to change gears. So when he leaps up into a falsetto for a single note or changes volume to emphasize a single word, the results are neither jarring nor awkward.

Shaw attributes his impressive musicianship to his classical training on piano and trumpet. "I've always kind of based my singing on my knowledge of the keyboard," he explains. "I think it is an asset when I compare it to people who I'm teaching... [who] don't have keyboard harmony. You notice the difference. It takes longer for them to get around the chord changes and to recognize them. They are relying a lot on their ears and instinct...when I sing I see the notes on the piano as I sing it almost." Although Shaw describes the experience of simultaneously singing and playing as "fantastic," he rarely accompanies himself. "I'm not the same as Patricia Barber or Diana [Krall]," he explains, "I don't see myself as a singer/pianist."

Despite his passion for improvisation, Shaw resists the temptation to deconstruct every tune. "I did 'The Very Thought of You' the other night, and you can't. You can hold back the phrases and play around a little, but there is no point in presenting a flourish of chromatics just for the sake of it." Shaw has also found himself increasingly drawn to the lyrics of his songs. "I realized through people like Mark Murphy and Carmen McRae that you could also tell a very strong story and connect emotionally with the audience not just as an improviser but also as a storyteller." Jazz, per se, was not a part of Shaw's early musical influences. "The first pop album that ever came into our home was Aretha Franklin," he recalls. He was also drawn to many of the singer/songwriters of the 1970s. "I'm a huge fan of Joni Mitchell," he notes. Shaw eventually left his home in North Wales and moved to London to study music. "I did a music degree in college, then I started singing in pubs." Although Shaw had developed some peripheral knowledge of jazz, he spent the early part of his career "singing rock and funk."

Tenor saxophonist and club proprietor Ronnie Scott played a significant role in transforming Shaw into a jazz singer. Due to economic pressures in the 1980s, Scott's famed London jazz club had been forced to expand its bookings. "I went into Ronnie Scott's in the late '80s with a funk band doing original compositions," explains Shaw. "I would sort of sneak in a couple of swingers and ballads, mostly ballads." Scott began suggesting American Songbook tunes to him. "Bit by bit for the next 5 or 6 years," Shaw recalls, "I replaced my original, kind of more funky, soulful 12/8 things with standards."

Of course, jazz singing is about much more than repertoire. Shaw learned the fundamentals of the art form in London's vinyl record shops. "I hunted out people like Jon Hendricks and Betty Carter. Ella Fitzgerald, of course. Carmen McRae." However, Shaw did not discover Mark Murphy until, "more recently, in the past ten years."

An appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival early in his career gave Shaw the opportunity to interact with two of the music's most accomplished vocal improvisers. "I met Sarah Vaughan in Holland the same year that I met Mel Tormé," he recalls. "Quite a long time ago really when I wasn't steeped in jazz." Shaw notes that Vaughan was "incredibly creative and totally in control of her craft." However, he was surprised to discover that, "she was a real good time gal ... From her records and when you see her on film, she looks like a real composed, stately, galleon of a singer, and she [wasn't]."

Shaw also learned an enormous amount about jazz, singing and performing from watching Betty Carter. "Betty was a frequent visitor to Ronnie Scott's. I would always go three or four times during her stints ... a phenomenal controller of rhythm and syncopation. I've never seen a singer do what she [did] with bands."

Working throughout Europe, Shaw began sifting through his influences to find his own style. Ghostsongs, a live CD recorded in 1992, captures him approximately midway through that process. The basic outline of Shaw's style is discernable, but the changes in dynamics are occasionally mannered, the falsetto a bit self-indulgent and some of the interpretations border on histrionic. "I loved playing around more when I was younger in terms of harmony," Shaw explains, "and now I think the storytelling aspect is far more important to me. I suppose less is more sometimes in terms of singing the ballads, and, also, I had never heard of Shirley Horn in those days, remember. Her understatement when she sings has appealed to me greatly more recently."

Early on Shaw resisted being tagged with the label "jazz singer." However, by the time he recorded Echo of a Song in 1996, he had both earned and embraced the term. The CD was a collection of tunes that had been suggested by Ronnie Scott during one of Shaw's stints at his club. "He literally wrote down songs on scraps of paper," Shaw recalls. A flawless collection of well-known standards and choice obscurities, Echo of a Song marked a turning point for Shaw. On the ballads he combines a newfound stylistic reserve with a remarkable emotional honesty. For example, he sings "I'll Be Seeing You" with an ineffable tenderness that gives the song an unexpected resonance. Shaw also removes any doubt that he has the two of the skills required of every great jazz singer: the ability to make familiar songs sound new and the ability to make obscure songs sound familiar.

Echo of a Song received some limited distribution in America and earned strong reviews. Shaw followed with his first American tour in 1997. He caught the attention of a couple of American jazz labels and ultimately signed with Fantasy Records.

For his first project on Fantasy's Milestone label, Shaw decided to collaborate with pianist Cedar Walton. "I played opposite Cedar two or three times [at Ronnie Scott's] and we just got on," explains Shaw. "I love the bluesy nature of what he does. I'm a great fan of the records he did with just bass; with David Williams... I love the control he has with a bassist. He knows exactly what he wants. He uses the entire keyboard in a way, apart from Oscar Peterson, I've never heard anyone do without it sounding too cheesy and too faux. As an accompanist, he's extraordinary. He listens very, very carefully to what you do and what you don't do. And I always look forward to his solos."

Although technically his 8th album, In a New York Minute effectively served as Ian Shaw's international debut. Walton's bluesy, harmonically rich playing provides an ideal setting for Shaw's soulful voice. Bassist Williams delivers solid rhythmic support and tenor saxophonist Iain Bellamy takes several excellent solos. Shaw rises to the challenge of his accompaniment, and, in the process, takes his singing to an entirely new level. Whether it a gorgeous, delicate rendering of Arlen & Harburg's "Last Night When We Were Young" or the rousing gospel feel of Bill Withers's "Grandma's Hands," Shaw has the measure of every song. He reinvents Joni Mitchell's "Furry Sings the Blues" without sacrificing the lyric's sharply detailed imagery. He turns "All or Nothing at All" into an improvisational obstacle course and raises the roof with a soulful "No One Ever Tells You." He drains "Alfie" of its usual mawkishness and expertly navigates the CD's excellent title song, written by composer Simon Wallace, Shaw's former accompanist, and the great lyricist Fran Landesman. Shaw duets with Walton on a breathtaking rethinking of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and their stripped down version of "That's Life" feels far more authentic than the famous, and famously over-produced, Sinatra recording.

Shaw gives producer Todd Barkan credit for coaxing the best possible performances out of him. "Little by little during the New York Minute sessions," Shaw recalls, "I realized that Todd had a very slow-paced, quiet, very carefully calculated way of working to produce a very finely balanced album." Shaw admits that the association with a large American record label has taken him into uncharted territory. "We don't have a tradition of huge jazz labels over here like you do in the U.S.," explains Shaw. "To be on Fantasy over here is a big deal. Ironically, it's gotten me more attention over here and I'm being talked about in the States as well which is very nice."

Shaw's latest CD, Soho Stories, is more of a conventional, though no less accomplished, jazz vocal record than its predecessor. Pianist James Pearson and drummer Mark Fletcher, both part of Shaw's regular working group, are joined in the rhythm section by bassist Chip Jackson. Guitarist Joe Beck, trumpeter Lew Soloff and tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Bob Kindred all make notable appearances, and Cedar Walton returns arranging and playing on one of his own tunes.

Choosing songs, Shaw notes, is much like choosing friends. "You just sort of pick them up as you go along and if you make a connection then great." Eschewing the extremes often advocated by critics (all standards/all original material), Shaw draws from a combination of standards, lesser known pre-rock tunes, newer material, and non-traditional songs.

Soho Stories opens with a superb "Comes Love" that demonstrates Shaw's ability to revitalize a familiar tune. The presence of drummer Fletcher on the CD adds an entirely new rhythmic dimension to the proceedings while both "Comes Love" and "Dearly Beloved" underscore Shaw's affinity for the bass. Shaw's flexible relationship to the beat is given free reign on a tempo-shifting "If You Could See Me Now," and his penchant for beautiful verses serves him well on "I Wished on the Moon."

"I'm finding that I'm more aware of songs that I'm allowed to sing now," says Shaw. "I would never have sung 'I Keep Going Back to Joe's' 15 years ago because I'd never even been there in the first place." Similarly, Shaw's interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer's "How Little We Know" captures all the conflicting emotions implied in the lyric. The performance, featuring gorgeous obbligatos from Lew Soloff, highlights Shaw's musical control at slow tempos. Yet he is equally in command on the almost forgotten Harold Arlen/Peggy Lee collaboration "Happy with the Blues," which Shaw takes at an almost surreal speed.

Richard Rodney Bennett's "I Never Went Away," Wallace & Landesman's "Tomorrow Never Came," and "Be Sure I'll Let You Know," a beautiful Cedar Walton original with lyrics by Shaw, are proof that great songs are still being written if you know where to look. "A Little Piece of Heaven," done with just bass & drums, is "a real throwaway lyric," says Shaw. "I just love the irreverence of it. Sometimes as a singer, especially an improvising singer, you can take a lyric and use it as a washing line. You don't need to foist any unnecessary emotional depths into it."

However, Shaw finds plenty of emotional depths in Janis Ian's "Ruby." With his background in funk and rock, Shaw has always been comfortable with the work of rock era songwriters, and "Ruby," he says, "really stood out to me. The story of it is amazing." As is his powerfully intense interpretation of the lyric. Producer Todd Barkan suggested closing the album with a solo voice & piano performance. Shaw sings and plays Tom Waits's "Rainbow Sleeves" with the quiet reflection of a person thinking out loud.

As much as he enjoys making records, "my natural environment," says Shaw, "is with my band on stage and an audience." Shaw performs regularly throughout Europe. "I like doing concerts because you're completely in control of what you're producing ... [and] we have some wonderful concert halls in Europe." However, he also enjoys the intimacy of nightclub work. "You can sense if one table isn't interested in what you're doing. I think it's much easier for a singer to control that environment than it is for somebody who blows a horn. You've got the power of language and persuasion to get them on your side. I enjoy that aspect of it," and he adds, "I don't mind being heckled at all."

Shaw toured the U.S. last year, but probably won't be returning to America until 2002. "We want to do it properly," says Shaw. "We've been offered loads of stuff but we can't really do just one thing here and one thing there ... it's very expensive because I want to take my drummer and my pianist over." Shaw enjoys playing for American audiences. "[They] applaud success and want you to be great," he says.

Shaw also uses his trips to the U.S. to catch up on what his colleagues are up to. "We don't get that many [jazz singers] over here available in the shops. I think you see much, much, much more of it than we do. My current favorite is Rene Marie. She's amazing. So good. Also Carla Cook, who I discovered through Claire Martin... Those particular two among the new crop I've been really impressed with. I can't wait to see them perform."

Shaw notes that young jazz singers face more obstacles in terms of building an audience. "I'm aware that all the great jazz singers we listen to—Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra—they were the pop singers of their day. So what the hell are we trying to do? We're certainly not the pop singers of our day." Yet he points out the opportunity to reach a mass audience often resulted in "a certain masking." "If you listen to all those records made in the last ten years of Carmen McRae's life, you can really hear her anger and her sort of regret and her sadness. Whereas you couldn't in the '50s and '60s because it was to do with the era and it was to do with fashion."

As for his own career, Shaw says, "I have a very busy year ahead of me." In addition to his own gigs, he has been touring with the BBC Big Band and performing concerts with the brilliant English jazz singer Claire Martin. He has also been thinking about his next album. The experience of recording "Ruby" has Shaw considering experimenting with more rock material in a jazz setting. "I would love to collaborate with Phoebe Snow," he says. Shaw also singles out pianists Jacky Terrasson and Fred Hersch as musicians he'd like to work with.

Reflecting on the opportunities that have opened up in the last few years, Shaw says, "This is an unexpected gift given to me in my 30s. Everything about it is fantastic. I feel very privileged to be able to do the job I'm doing and long may it continue."

Finding a way to ensure that he will have a long and successful career in jazz appears to be one lesson that Ian Shaw has already learned.

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