Here comes the song king


Brian Blain, April/May 2011

He's a pearl of a singer, he did standup and he plays the piano: BRIAN BLAIN meets IAN SHAW.

Twice in recent months (once at Ronnie Scott's, performing with the multinational band on his new Abbey Road Sessions release, the other at Dean Street's Pizza Express in the company of his mischievous occasional running mate Liane Carroll) I have found myself in a packed house responding to the 1972 Stealers' Wheel anthem "Stuck in the Middle With You" by joining in the chorus when the piano-playing leader of the pack cuts the sound, cups a hand to an ear and waits for our amateur glee club response to the punchline of the title before we all dissolve into giggles of embarrassment. There aren't any beard-strokers in the audience, just a bunch of people who are up for a good time, but they will fall into rapt attention and be visibly moved by that mysterious something we call art when the Welsh magician on stage, pianist vocalist Ian Shaw, changes the mood with another song, "Somewhere Towards Loves".

Clearly our man is a very special kind of jazz musician, not simply because of his vocal technique and his self-accompanist's piano chops but because of a state of mind and a power of imagination that can switch from deep emotion expressed through brilliant lyrics (frequently his own, as on the 2007 Lifejacket album) to coruscating wit and the sometimes hilarious exploitation of his own gay sexuality. In short, he is an astonishing one-off; if a sixties Bohemian culture still existed in Soho he would undoubtedly be one of its leading courtiers.

Nevertheless, while he's always up for a good time he's also a grafter. Trying to nail him for a few words about his new album, The Abbey Road Sessions, left me exhausted just contemplating his movements. First he's off to Leeds, rehearsing for a big benefit in memory of the marvellous Linda Smith alongside old stand-up chums Jo Brand, Andy Hamilton, Rory Bremner, Mark Thomas and John Hegley (he got them all to sing "Sunny Side of the Street") to raise money for the charity that seeks a cure for the scourge that killed her, ovarian cancer. Then he has his own band to rehearse for two nights at the Pizza to launch the album. He travels all over Europe and to the far corners of the UK, teaches record production and produces albums for a number of promising young singers as well as offering the one-to-one tuition that most London musicians take on if they want to stay in the game.

When we do meet we quickly reprise what is reasonably well known; his background in North Wales, his father a brass band musician who went on to play with Syd Lawrence and who introduced him to a wide range of popular music and swing, his own cornet playing in the band and his classical piano studies. What did surprise me was the part that standup comedy played in his life, five years before launching into music full time. It's a long time since he first appeared at Ronnie Scott's as a member of Brave New World alongside Adrian York and the Lewinson brothers, Steve and Peter. These were my own earliest memories him, of the best white soul boys in the business.

"Ronnie Scott was in fact, a very important factor in my development as a jazz singer," says Shaw, "Which is funny really because his whole public persona was this hip fifties modern jazz guy, yet he really loved great song and he introduced me to loads of them. The other strange thing, though, was his attitude towards my off-the-cuff talking to audiences which came from my stand-up background. It made him feel uneasy, I think; he had certainly never encountered it in a musician before. He, of course, was wonderful at talking to audiences, but in a different way. His structured routines which he delivered night after night were brilliant, but very traditional in the old-school manner of the solo comedian. Pete [King, the Club's co-owner] was funny too, always winding me up about the gay thing. The Club was very important to my development as a musician, not just performing there but taking in the whole ambience and hearing so many great players. I think it's still important for a new generation, the ones who are there for the late night jams. This is something that wasn't there before and I think it's a shame the reviewers never seem to go down there so it doesn't get written about. I think it's an important part today's scene, but of course what happens to all the young players is the big question. It's the best of times and the worst of times and it depends if you are a glass half-full or a glass half-empty kind of person."

After Scott's mentoring he sang frequently in partnership with female singers such as Carol Grimes, Claire Martin (who persuaded him to study piano again) Barb Jungr and Liane Carroll and he has deep admiration for Norma Winstone, Christine Tobin and, latterly, Georgia Mancio with whom he has performed a number of duo gigs in the last year or so.

Apart from the odd night at the 606 where he still loves to roar with musicians like Mornington Lockett and Mark Fletcher, Ian believes that taking a band on the road is just far too expensive, particularly when the solo piano format could produce such an exquisite album as Somewhere Towards Love where the song, rather than the wild improvisation, reigns supreme.

I suspect his itch to write for and perform in a band is one of the reasons for the new Abbey Road disc. He has also had a big band in the production of his new Splash Point release, but none of the familiar faces from earlier releases like Guy Barker, Julian Siegel and Janette Mason are present. How come? "We just wanted to do something different and yet in a way quite traditional. I also liked the idea of having players from different counties where I have worked. So the saxophone player, Zhenya Strigalev, is Russian and I got to know him where he was at Charlie Wright's Bar for a spell. There is a young Spanish trumpet player in the band, Phil Ware, the pianist is from Dublin and Gene Calderazzo, although he lives here, represents that hip New York thing."

The biggest surprise on the album, however, is bassist Peter Ind, now over 80, who was a member of the Lennie Tristano school of New York avantgardists in the early fifties: "Peter's there because he asked me to play at his book launch, plus he also gave me my first break at the old Tenor Clef in Hoxton," says Shaw. Ind's glorious 32 bars of walking bass at the beginning of "The Lady's in Love With You" create a great groove and he takes a lovely ruminative solo on "Darn That Dream", while Strigalev proves his worth on "I'm Through With Love". I was also taken with Ian's switch to Ray Charles mode on "Since I Fell For You" as well as the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature", rapidly acquiring crossover hit status.

Oh, and yes, "Stuck in the Middle WithYou" is track five. All together now…