Album Review: A Ghost In Every Bar


Peter Quinn, September 2012


Fran Landesman (1927-2011) will forever be associated with the two songs, now standards, she penned with Tommy Wolf in the 1950s: Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and Ballad Of The Sad Young Men. In fact, Landesman's most fruitful creative partnership came in the latter part of her life when she joined forces with pianist and composer Simon Wallace in 1994. And it's their songs, of which they penned over 400 in a 17-year period, that make up the meat of this 15-track anthology.

Recorded by some of the jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, Landesman confessed towards the end of her life how tired she was of hearing Spring until she heard Ian Shaw sing it. High praise indeed. Given that imprimatur, and with her co-writer Wallace in the piano chair (for the most part), it would be no exaggeration to say that the interpretations of A Ghost In Every Bar are definitive. Shaw is brilliantly insightful in every song, whether it's the salutary caught-with-yours-pants-down tale of Feet Do Your Stuff, the slacker anthem Small Day Tomorrow, or the confessional Scars (the song Landesman was most proud of). The quartet of previously unrecorded songs is an unexpected treat, from the slow, slightly disquieting tread of Stranger ("I was never someone normal, I was always a surprise") to the bittersweet Nothing Lasts Forever, one of three tracks in which Shaw assumes piano duties. Oh, and his take on Spring, beautifully accompanied by Wallace, really is quite brilliant.

Jazzwise talks to Ian Shaw about his album

How would you describe Fran Landesman as a lyricist?

She's accidentally a genius, I think. To me, it feels like a bar in a crematorium, it's that sort of juxtaposition of dark and ridiculous. They've ended up extremely singable. They capture her, but they also capture that timeless quality of a good song. There's always a line in her songs that absolutely grips me.

Where would you place her in the pantheon of jazz lyricists?

Well, she's no Ira Gershwin, but again it's that combination of raw and real and poetic. I do think she's poetic. Inherent in her work is more poetry than, say, Dorothy Fields. Maybe it's just the ones I've chosen but it's not zeitgeist-y at all, it's fairly kind of time-generic. Also, some of them could be "The hits from the musical" which is good for her. It's a good sign that it worked, lyrically. I think she's flawed, but love flawed art anyway.

Did you have in your mind which new songs you wanted to do?

I think I got hold of about 80 songs and went through them, then picked the ones that were pertinent to me.

What was it like returning to Spring again, having recorded it before?

It felt really, really good to sing it again. It's a very similar weight to Lush Life that song - it has the same expanse. It even has the same structure: two big fat choruses and a verse.