Get out of Town
Peter Quinn, March 2011
Ian Shaw's reputation as one of the UK's leading jazz singers grows ever stronger as the years go by. His latest album recorded at the famed Abbey Road studios sees the singer in the company of legendary Tristano disciple Peter Ind.
So sorry I'm late", says Ian Shaw, as he bounds into the bar of Kettner's in Soho. The singer has just come from a meeting with the Vortex's David Mossman, in which they've been finessing the finer details of an upcoming fundraiser. Artistically speaking, Shaw has always been one of music's inveterate plate-spinners. He's just completed a string of seven shows at Pizza Express Jazz Club with a slew of special guests that included Carol Grimes, Linda Lewis, Madeline Bell, Liane Carroll and Claire Martin ("I adore having some totty on stage, which is highly ironic isn't it?" he says with a giggle). During the course of our conversation, which lasts just a shade under an hour and a half, his mobile twitches with such a steady stream of texts and calls that it's rather like sitting next to London's jazz hotline. You don't get the impression that Ian Shaw sits around twiddling his thumbs very much.
How is the gigging, songwriting, producing and presenting going, anyway? "The detrimental delusions of being a polymath? I do it to survive. I'm very lucky to do what I do, my self-containment as a solo performer. I don't know how I'd survive if I ran a band. I love performing, I love audiences. Talk to Claire Martin about this and she's brutally pragmatic about it. Her love of the music is obvious, but she will say, 'I'm a mum. I'm a wife. Jazz is hard.' I've never really felt that I was a statesman of that particular brand of pragmatism, I suppose. Of course," he adds sardonically, "if I owned some suits and was thin I'd be hugely famous."
We're here to talk about Shaw's new album, The Abbey Road Sessions, recorded in a single day last July after gigging the material over five nights at Ronnie Scott's. Originally conceived as a trio album featuring Shaw, his regular collaborator and guitarist, David Preston, and bass legend Peter Ind (Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Buddy Rich, Mal Waldron), the singer confesses that - fired up with the excitement of arranging again and being able to exercise that part of his brain - the textural palette soon began to grow. The final line-up of handpicked musicians includes US drummer Gene Calderazzo, the young Russian altoist Zhenya Strigalev, the even more youthful Spanish trumpeter Miguel Gorodi, and the Dublin-based pianist, Phil Ware. As a listener, you get the best of both worlds - the intimacy of the duo and trio arrangements on the one hand,the ear-catching textural delights of the septet pieces on the other.
Straddling a remarkable four generations, from the 19-year-old trumpeter to the 80-plus bassist, the key figure on the date is Preston, Shaw's co-writer on his 2008 album, Lifejacket. Shaw is clearly a fan: "He's not Dave Cliff, he's not Jim Mullen, he's not Mike Outram, he's not Phil Robson. He's different, a slightly darker approach harmonically. I just admire what he does, it's sort of striving rather than... I can't name the gig, but I went to a gig recently and there were five 20-year-olds on stage looking like they were 48, and playing like they were 48. A wonderful singer and her band, and the whole atmosphere didn't go above three and it was just 'What are they teaching you at college?' It was extraordinary, there was all the technique and all the flair, but it was almost David Lynch-like watching these beautiful young boys looking like jaded old jazz musicians. Terrible."
Given the breadth of the material - which ranges from a singularly dark take on Cole Porter's 'Get Out Of Town', to an English language version of Dori Caymmi's 'Obsession' ("I wish I could sing in Portuguese. I've tried it and I end up sounding like Benny Hill"), to Joni Mitchell's 'Be Cool' and an altogether wonderful reworking of 'Stuck In The Middle With You' - and the richness of the arrangements, I almost choke on the bar nuts when Shaw coolly informs me that the whole thing came together in just one rehearsal prior to the shows at Ronnie's.
"I loathe rehearsing" he informs me, "but I acknowledge that the map needs to be clear and then I can float over the top of it. That's awful, isn't it? I suppose that's the thing about when you drive your own gig from the piano. For the last five years I've got used to really locking in to me, doing what I want. So it's been a good discipline for me as well. And we will rehearse - twice - before the tour."
And just thinking about the recording itself - a whopping 13 tracks nailed in the space of a day - the pressure must have been intense? "It's basically a live recording. I think the pressure was intense for everybody around me, but I loved it. As I've told you before, I'm not a huge fan of recording myself, but I realise that they're important things. They're books, aren't they, the same as novelists. Of course it was tense, because we should have done it over a week, but I just wanted to do it - not like a session - but I went in there with a kind of session head on thinking, right, I've gotta sing these songs, two or three takes, maybe, on each one. A lot of work, but I don't think anyone was busted by it - Peter Ind the least. He was in that booth, playing that music like we'd been doing it for years."
Ind, whose friendship with Shaw stretches back to his days of running the Bass Clef club, also had a hand in deciding the album's sign-off song. "Peter whispered to me, 'Do you know Stairway To The Stars?' I said, 'Yes, I do'. Then he said, 'My daughter died yesterday, could you sing it for her.' We didn't know about it until the end of the session - then he told us. It was a tribute to her, and it felt a real honour to sing it."
If the desire to dust down his arranging skills explains the album's textural make-up, its emotional centre revolves around the breakup of Shaw's relationship with his partner, Johann, a German student who was studying in Switzerland when they met. The relationship lasted three and a half years, with Shaw spending half his time in the UK, half in Zurich.
"He was 18 when I met him, 22 when I left him. Too young, really. An extraordinary being and I learnt a lot from him. A wonderful, beautiful human being. But I knew that I couldn't be what he wanted eventually. Lifejacket, Somewhere Towards Love [Shaw's solo 2009 release] and this new album are an absolute trilogy of where I was - and how lucky to be able to put it into your work like that, you know, because most people can't. No one noticed, that's the great thing. No one noticed, because they relate it immediately to themselves. Lifejacket was about being 42 and thinking, Oh God, and then meeting Johann. So it was a huge coming together of writing about Johann, which contextualised my childhood - that lyric about thinking he was 'my safest place' - and the strange emotional dichotomy of looking back. And then having this amazing sex life which I'd never really had before. And then losing my father. Somewhere Towards Love was about, 'Well, I'm in it and it feels great, but I'm not sure it's going to last.'" If The Abbey Road Sessions is to be considered a break-up record, it's one that has its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek.
Having interviewed the singer on several occasions over the past few years, it's remarkable to think that - with the obvious exception of Jamie Cullum - there have been no other young pretenders appearing on the horizon, threatening to steal Shaw's crown. Apart from Anthony Strong ("he writes, he plays amazing piano, he sings, he's not imprisoned by any style") and Josh Kyle ("Claire [Martin] loves him, he's got a lovely voice"), Shaw is at a loss to name any other young male singers who have caught his interest. There may be a number of factors involved in this drought. Shaw has his own theories.
"It's because we're still reeling from the Sinatra wannabe era. And it might also be something to do with emotional and sexual politics. The women singers are more creative. Anita Wardell, for example. Phenomenal talent. What she does is almost like a magic trick. It's learnt, it's crafted, there's no diffusion. 'I stand there. I close my eyes. I get into the song. I swing. I'm into bebop. That's what I do.' Brilliant. I think Christine Tobin is singularly the most unique artist we've got in this country. She has a thumbprint of a voice, her instrument, no-one sings like that. Her approach to other people's material, her writing with Phil [Robson], her connection with other art forms. It just makes me very happy to listen to her and be in her company. I think she's a true artist. She doesn't compromise, she's not a creative tourist, she does her thing. I was very surprised when she did the Carole King album and I thought, you know what, in five years' time people will look back on Tapestry Unravelled and they'll be glad that it exists. It's done so simply, so succinctly, and with such passion."
As anyone who has seen Shaw live will know, he's one of a select group of artists who can make you laugh and cry within a single gig. The jokes and bon mots are seamlessly stitched into the fabric of his stagecraft. So it doesn't come as a complete surprise to discover that he's recently returned to the art form in which he first made a name for himself: as a stand-up who sings a bit, rather than the other way round.
"We did about 10-12 dates in big theatres with brilliant telly names that I used to work with when I did the standup circuit years ago," he says. "Alistair Smith, Hattie Hayridge, Sandi Toksvig. It was called Variety Lives, put on by Warren Lakin who is fabulously into comedy and jazz. I've got another one coming up with Jo Brand, Rory Bremner and Mark Thomas. It's terrifying, listening to the applause for the comedian before you, but I loved it. I loved the interaction and I loved not sitting at the piano or with a band. And I interspersed it with some songs."
And has the scene changed considerably since those early days when he first started out?
"There are some comedians on the scene who are just awful. Awful. How dare Frankie Boyle do what he's doing and think he can get away with it. How dare they black up in the new Little Britain. What is this arrogance? Why is it so negative and dehumanising? It's something that's very much reflected in every other art form, including music."
So he's not a fan of The X Factor, then? Shaw looks genuinely horrified. "No, I'm not. Someone sent me a link to this 17-year-old kid who was on The X Factor. His singing was beyond belief. He swings, he sings, I don't know where it comes from. He was told by Dannii Minogue that he wasn't 'pop star material'. By Dannii-fucking-Minogue. The X Factor is like some cancerous blob in Independence Day. All that immediacy. Ugh, it's so depressing. Bring back Opportunity Knocks and the singing, three-legged lesbian bulldog."
And, on that note, we part company. As Shaw melts into the burgeoning Friday evening crowd for a night of carousing, you feel sure that he's already beginning to play around with the vague outlines of his next project.