Interview in

Ten Questions for Ian Shaw

Matt Ruddick, 10th February 2016

Best Jazz Vocalist at the BBC Jazz Awards in 2007 and 2004, and nominated in the Best UK Vocalist category at the JazzFM awards in 2013, Ian Shaw has already amassed a number of highly acclaimed internationally released albums and is a popular performer both in the UK and the US. He has been cited, along with Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling, as one of the world's finest male jazz vocalists. Ian's latest album, The Theory Of Joy, will be released on 12th February on Jazz Village Music.

1. Why is your new CD called The Theory Of Joy?

It was based on The Joy Of Theory, which was a dissertation I found years ago. I just wanted to turn the concept on its head, really. The songs are all about less than ideal situations, whether it's the Joni Mitchell lyric, bemoaning her family's misunderstanding of her youth, or a Traffic lyric, or Michel Legrand – how do we keep our love – or my own lyrics, such as My Brother. It's about how happiness is never really portrayed in art, and doesn't really have much weight - happy art is not good art! So, tongue planted firmly in cheek, I called it The Theory Of Joy!

2. What did Claire Martin bring to the table as a producer?

She, out of all the singers I've grown up with, gets me completely. She knows my singing, my personality. I just wanted someone who understood what I wanted to get across. She understands what I – subjectively and objectively – think is good or bad about my own performance. So I trusted her implicitly. And she's very hip to good arrangements, what works for the band. It's the first album I've done as a trio – most of my other albums have been bigger bands, or just me playing the piano – or someone else playing the piano for me. So I trusted her taste, I suppose – she's very classy – and I trusted her ears. She was also a very good spirit to have in the studio. She'd press the button and say, "Do that again," and I'd ask why, and she'd say, "It wasn't very good!" It was a very 'egg and chips' approach to making a truthful, honest album, and capture what we do live.

3. That brings me on the next question – why use a trio on this album?

I use a trio on the road, and it's a standard jazz presentation, sonically. It also makes for a very orchestral sound if you need it. And I was aware that I was touring with a trio, increasingly with no horn players, which was pushing me as a singer to improvise more. So rather than a horn solo, it would still be me doing it. It's my fourteenth album, and I thought it was time to capture what we do on the road.

4. The new album offers elements of jazz, Bowie, Joni Mitchell, even Traffic. So what sort of music was playing in the Shaw household when you were growing up?

My mama ironed to Two Way Family Favourites for twenty-five years, which was Radio Two, really. So we heard what we thought was old-fashioned pop music – which was, in fact, jazz. Lots of big band stuff, 1950s vocalists like Nat 'King' Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Sarah Vaughan and, of course, Sinatra. It was in the background all the time. My Dad and I played in a local brass band together, so there were also strange versions of excerpts from Oklahoma!, The Sound Of Music and My Fair Lady for brass band! A big wodge of popular music, really, on to which I injected a layer of contemporary stuff - hence Bowie, Pink Floyd and Traffic - although I was a bit too young for Traffic.

5. I know the album was recorded last summer, before the sad news of his passing, but what did Bowie mean to you?

Well, Bowie was the first pop music that got into another layer of my brain, I suppose. I was eager to analyse it, and find out why it sounded like it did. The first album I bought with my own money was Hunky Dory, on which was the iconic Changes and Life On Mars? There was even jazz on the album, a track called Fill Your Heart, which is pure jazz. It featured Rick Wakeman playing pure honky tonk/vaudeville stride piano. I kind of liked his weirdness, visually, but also the fact that he threw a bit of everything into the music – it wasn't just metal, or Brit soul – it kind of encapsulated everything.

6. I was intrigued by the inclusion of a Paul Williams tune – as I grew up listening to my Dad's copy of Best of Paul Williams, too. Why did you choose Everything?

He can be a bit schlocky, I suppose! I remember the film, A Star Is Born, and really liked all the songs., including the hit, Evergreen, and The Woman In The Moon. The lyrics of Everything are so brilliant – again, it's The Theory Of Joy. You know, I want to be able to do this, do that, stop the weather… "Move into the White House, paint it yellow…" It's a really well structured song.

7. On your press release, the Guardian describes you as being the "UK's most honest jazz vocalist," but here you are, talking about picking a pocket or two… a love of musicals, or social commentary?

I knew Lionel Bart very well. I've also wanted to sing his songs, but struggled to work out which song to sing! Consider Yourself? The whole thing about the corrupt nature of the way we live our lives, George Osbourne, and Google not paying its tax. I just thought it was a tongue in cheek way of saying 'if you can't be honest, don't be honest'. The band love playing it, because it's a great groove - it ain't jazz, really, it's quite funky. Claire originally said, "You can't have that on the album, it's horrible, I hate it!" We recorded it anyway, and when we played it back, she said, "That's one of the best tracks on the album, we have to have that on!" (Laughs)

8. What's the story behind All This And Betty Too? It sounds like the description of a wild night out…

Claire and I were massive fans of Betty Carter, and we were so puzzled as to how she did what she did, really. It's the story of Claire and I sitting there in our youth, completely wide-eyed and mystified by the way this woman sang. So that's what it is really - and the description of a good night out in Soho, with all the images in there! And I wanted to write a be-bop tune. It was originally much faster than we recorded it, but then the drummer – Dave Ohm – said we should put the words first, because it's quite a nice story. So it's ceased to be the be-bop work-out that it once was!

9. At what point did you think about using My Brother – which is a gorgeous composition – for the people in Calais?

Well, they call me 'my brother' – the Afghans, the Syrians, the Ethiopians, the Eritreans – so it made a lot of sense. The concept of having a family member I didn't even meet – my brother – that is their story. Most of them don't even know if they're going to see their family again. Half of them, their family has been killed – especially the kids in there. It seemed a really suitable way to raise some money for the three NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that I work with. It's done the trick. All the refugees in the Jungle have it on their phones, some of them have it as their ringtone.

I've had a lot of hate, some vile messages, almost death threats. But the thing is – come with me, judge for yourself. You can meet Hamud, an eleven-year old child with TB, who's got no-one there to treat him. There's no programme in France that allows him to have treatment unless he applies for asylum in France. But he can't do that, because he's a minor. In this day and age, I never thought we'd have to repeat what we only saw on documentaries about the Second World War. And it so close to home – just twenty miles away from my house in Kent. I can even see the Calais lighthouse from my house. But as long as they're there, I'll keep going.

10. How did you first get involved?

I went to Sangatte thirteen years ago, and did a benefit for Kurdish Iraqi refugees, and then last summer I saw a news story – I think it was Al Jazeera – and it gave a detailed description of what was going on there. So I thought I should go over there, put my car on a ferry, and went. I parked my car outside the Jungle, walked in, and met all these extraordinary people, with extraordinary stories. I was asked why I keep going back, but it really is life-changing, and makes you question whether this is the right way to run our country. Last October a count was carried out – humane profiling was all but absent in both camps. I don't know whether you read about the test case involving unaccompanied minors, but we managed to get four through to the UK. We're trying to find out exactly who's in there, who they are, where they've come from, do they really think they can come to England. Did you know there were 97 cardiologists from Sudan. And we are so desperately short of cardiologists.

I just wish the Government would take a good look at the profiles of who is there, and re-consider. And that's the problem, there's a disconnect between what Cameron has said he will do and what needs to be done. It was appalling what he said in Prime Minister's Question Time; you can't say that as Prime Minister – it's an incitement to hate. I continue to volunteer – there are about one hundred of us, I think, and on a day-to-day basis, around thirty. There's no medical help there at all, no recognised charities – it's all volunteers.

I've just been in touch with some refugees, and there's been another tear-gas attack in broad daylight. If I'm there, my job is to load these lads into my car, take them off to hospital, and hope the riot police let me through – and let me back in. I've had many violent disagreements with the riot police, or CRS – and we pay for them! It's absolutely ludicrous.

Please consider making a contribution to the NGOs Ian is working with...

Side By Side Refugees - a collective, based in Essex, gathering vital donated aid from the South East and driving it into the Calais Jungle

Care4Calais - a warehouse in Calais, run by John Sloan and Clare Moseley, that does up to four distributions each day, directly into the jungle

Médecins Sans Frontières - the wonderful French NGO, that assists sanitation and health, on the ground, all over the world. They are present in Calais