James Leavey's Sharing An Ashtray With... Ian Shaw


Ian Shaw


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  By James Leavey

I was sitting on a double-decker flame-red London bus, unlit Fox cigar in hand (at least that's not illegal, yet) skimming through Ian Shaw's official biography which I'd earlier downloaded from his Boston agent via the Internet and a young man opposite asked: "Who's Ian Shaw""

"Who wants to know"" I replied."My name's Ian Shaw and I'm a systems analyst," he said."Well you're fortunate to share a name with one of the greatest male jazz vocalists to emerge from Britain in the last few decades," I explained, patiently, wishing I could light up the Corona.It's a small world.

I first caught up with Shaw the jazz singer in March 1997, at the final gig of his first highly successful American tour.That night he wowed me and Washington DC's sophisticates into submission by effortlessly swooping from pitch-perfect falsetto to deep-toned soul while interjecting the occasional witty asides; all delivered with the faultless timing of a former stand-up comedian.

His talent has been perfectly summed up by one of his most stalwart fans, the New York-based musician and composer, Richard Rodney Bennett: "There seems to be nothing that Ian Shaw cannot do vocally.He is at home in the most extreme registers, while having a wonderfully secure middle range.When it comes to improvising on a standard he can invent a totally new tune on the spot.He can swing furiously or float in a lyrical haze. This is a great singer."

Shaw, who has been nominated Best British Jazz Singer for the last six years (he won it once, in 1993) will be touring America coast-to-coast again early in 1998.He was born 35 years ago in North Wales and when he's in England divides his time between London and Brighton.

Encouraged by his father, Vic, who played cornet in a local brass band, and his mother, Megan, a pianist, Ian Shaw started playing cornet and piano at 6, entering and eventually winning a National Brass Band Championship.

"I grew up listening to my Dad's taste in music which was swing bands and singers like Vic Damone," he said."I resisted it until I went out and bought a David Bowie album. Hunky Dory was my turning point and pointed me towards Frank Sinatra, Anthony Newley, jazz, vaudeville and black American music."

Shaw left school at 18 and took a degree in music and drama at King's College, University of London. "I didn't really start singing until I was a student and automatically sang jazz because at the time I was listening to a lot of Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, Betty Carter, Carmen McCrae and Mark Murphy."

In 1985, he formed a standup duo with musician Andrew Phillips."I really liked his guitar playing style and we got together to sing and perform anti-Margaret Thatcher songs.We went on to Britain's cabaret circuit alongside Ben Elton, Julian Clary and Mark Thomas who are now well-0established alternative comedians. That's how I learned to cope with live gigs really because we were playing to heckling comedy audiences, interlacing songs with comedy patter."

In June 1985, Shaw made his first album, The Snowing Upwards in June, with avant garde soprano sax player, Lol Coxhill, which introduced him to jazz improvisation.

"My earlier experience of comedy helped me perform with good grace and irony, " said Shaw."I prefer to serve the song rather than do a bad impression of a jazz singer from the 1950s."

Shaw's musical heroes include Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong Sarah Vaughan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Holliday and Mel Torme.He still does the occasional one-man tributes to Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach.

During his first tour of America. Shaw got glowing reviews from jazz critics in Los Angeles, Arizona, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington.He returned in August 1997 for his New York debut to promote the American release of his new album, Echo of a Song, put together with an old friend, the late Ronnie Scott.

"I first played at Ronnie Scott's in 1989 when I was singing with a funky soul band called Brave New World, which also featured Adrian York," said Shaw."Ronnie said 'Why don't you sing some jazz"' so I added a couple of ballads in the set and they went down a storm.After that I became one of his favourite singers and he booked me 4-5 times a year.

"Ronnie exposed me to lots of new songs which I wouldn't have learned otherwise and it all culminated in Echo of a Song, an album of beautiful songs from the 1930s and 1940s he helped me choose."

Shaw first met Mel Torme, like him a tolerant former smoker, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1989:"I was playing in a piano bar and he was calling out songs to sing.I didn't recognise him until he gave me his business card and I thought'Whoops!'Later we met up and talked about music and got on really well."

Shaw shares with Torme the ability to control live audiences."What a shame you've come for a quiet night out and someone has built a jazz club around you" is one of his standard put-downs."It's all about re-educating people's ears," admitted Shaw, "as some maybe are not used to attending live jazz.

"Apart from that, I think the job of a jazz singer is to reinvent and personalise an existing repertoire."

At present, Echo of a Song and Taking it to the Hart are the only two of Shaw's five albums (the others include Lazy Blue Eyes – recorded with the UK's premier blues singer, Carol Grimes, and GhostSongs) available in the USA, but it's early days yet.

They say the best jazz clubs are the ones where you can't see the stage for the smoke – drifting from performers and fans on both sides of the spotlights.You can always tell when the jazz musicians have finished their final set - they take the cigarettes and matches with them instead of leaving them behind (for an encore).

I would never dream of lighting up a cigar during a Shaw gig, out of respect for his voice, but, to his credit, he has always encouraged me to do so – including an excellent evening at the Pizza on the Park in Knightsbridge, and another at Ronnie Scott's.

Now that's what I call a truly great jazz singer.

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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