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Performance Review

Pizza Express Dean Street, 23 January 2018

Sebastian Scotney

The Ian Shaw residency at Pizza Express Dean Street always brings me a pang, a frisson, those pinch-myself moments of self-referential nostalgia. Because it was the subject of the very first post on this site. I wrote a preview of the equivalent week in January 2009, and sent an email to a few friends to say I had "had a rush of blood to the head and started a blog". And here we are, nine years and nearly 8,000 articles later. (That's enough wallowing - Ed.)

The 2018 week is well under way; I caught the second night. This was jazz as civilized conversation based around great songs, with mutual respect, ideas criss-crossing, humour, banter. The wonderful craft that probably won't make any headlines or cut any edges, but thoroughly enjoyable it was.

One of the features of this week is that it there are several different pianists on show. It will be a perfect opportunity for any doubters to see how ridiculously high the bar is set for aspiring jazz pianists in London. There will be the virtuosity of James Pearson, the serendipity and mind-reading of Barry Green, and the latin excellence of John Crawford. And from the younger generation there will be Liam Dunachie performing Lauren Bush's hilarious Canada show.

Last night was the turn of Jamie Safir. Iain Ballamy has hardly ever worked with him before, but was eulogising to me last night about quite how good, sensitive and nimble a player he is. There were moments when saxophonist and pianist were going off exploring in duo territory, with Ballamy floating shapely delicate arabesques, and those delightful alternative fingering saxophone babble-gurgles. They reminded me of one of the very best tenor and piano duo albums, Stan Getz and Albert Dailey's Poetry (off you go, enjoy). Safir plays with wonderful judgment, delicacy and alertness. If he is good now he is only getting better.

Ian Shaw had chosen the songs well, with interesting contrasts throughout. Particularly memorable were Who Can I Turn To? and Wichita Lineman. He and Iain Ballamy know each other well, the saxophonist having appeared on at least five of the singer's albums. The challenge for Ballamy or Safir as soloists is that Ian Shaw doesn't only state a melody, by the time he hands the responsibility over he has already gone to all kinds of unlikely places, often with a lot of chromatic-slip-sliding. So the listener needs the instrumental soloist to find something that can follow on naturally and tell a continuing story, but also takes the narrative somewhere else. That is where the craft of these musicians resides, and the harder one listens the more delights there are to hear.

And talking of delights, one absolute highlight of the evening was also its least-expected impromptu moment. Ian Shaw somehow managed to inveigle the great Elaine Delmar to come up and do a song: her poised, intense, flowing account of Thad Jones/ Alec Wilder's A Child Is Born. Whereas, say, Tony Bennett in his classic recording with Bill Evans breaks up the line and makes the most of silences as pauses for reflection, Elaine Delmar and Jamie Safir managed to give this song, even at similar rapt slow speed, a sense of continuity and flow that brought out all the emotion in every word. Unforgettable.

One nice aspect of the week is that photographer Bob Barkany will be photographing every single show. His picture above from the rehearsal captures well all the concentration and mutual respect that went into a highly enjoyable gig.