Album Review: A Ghost In Every Bar
Guido Diesing, November/December 2012
It can indeed be a lovely thing, when there is something as yet unknown. For the simple reason that you still have the joyful moment of discovery ahead of you. A perfect example of this is the new CD from Ian Shaw. For one thing the Welsh jazz singer, pianist and comedian is not anywhere near as well known in this country [Germany] as he should be given his talent. Then, on A Ghost In Every Bar, he is singing songs all with lyrics by Fran Landesman. Those who nod their heads in recognition of this name may well be even fewer in number. The New York born poet and lyricist, long an inhabitant of London where she died last year at the age of 83, was best known for her lyrics to two jazz standards which she wrote back in the 1950s: Ballad of the Sad Young Men and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most — which was covered so often, by artists from Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, that Landesman herself began to tire of it. Until she heard the version by Ian Shaw with whom she enjoyed a friendship. After her death he kept a promise he made to her to dedicate a complete album to her lyrics.
Shaw is the perfect interpreter of these songs which initially sound as though they could be ones missed when flicking through the Great American Songbook. And yet they are more modern in content and language and portray the whole complexity of human character and relationships - one moment witty and full of humour, the next melancholy and contradictory. Landesman loved dealing with language in an unexpected way, following the apparently banal with a statement of universal truth. She plays with words ("Don't blame me for killing time, when time is killing me") and rhymes such as in Down, an ode to self-destruction conducted with relish: "You continue to enjoy yourself / while trying to destroy yourself". Another of the high points of the album, alongside the deeply sad Only Why No More, is the interpretation of Scars, one of Landesman's favourite poems. In it she describes the scars everyone carries around with them and the courage needed not to hide them; in a few lines devoid of pathos she moves from the scar on the knee from a fall from a bike to the scar on the soul caused by the loss of a child.
Simon Wallace, Landesman's musical partner of many years, setting over 400 of her lyrics to music, is at the piano and provides supreme accompaniment for the ballads in the old tradition as well as for the up tempo songs. And Ian Shaw is simply a singer who reaches into the heart of the listener in the most direct way. His affinity with the lyricist is tangible as he uncovers the sadness always resonating beneath the surface: "My heart tries to sing, so you won't hear it crying".