Album Review: Shine Sister Shine

Ian Mann, The Jazz Mann

24th January 2018


Ian Shaw, born 1962, is arguably the UK's most accomplished male jazz vocalist.

He represents an intriguing figure, one who is content to sit outside the mainstream despite having the necessary attributes to make it as a mainstream entertainer. Shaw is also an accomplished pianist and a raconteur with a ready and salty wit. Something of a polymath, he's been an actor, comedian and an Alternative Cabaret entertainer. In jazz terms he's also a highly skilled improviser who sings with great technical facility and is prepared to criss-cross genres and take musical risks. Shaw is also an artist with strong political convictions who is a trustee of the Side By Side With Refugees organisation. He has done much to raise public awareness of the refugee crisis and has been a frequent visitor to the camps in Calais.

Since making his recording d├ębut in 1990, Shaw has enjoyed a long, varied and fruitful career working with musicians and vocalists from both sides of the Atlantic including the late, great American pianist and composer Cedar Walton. A frequent award winner, he has been named Best Jazz Vocalist at both the BBC and Jazz FM Jazz Awards as well as being nominated in the Downbeat Annual Readers' Poll in the US.

Shine Sister Shine represents his fifteenth album as a leader and is a semi-conceptual affair that pays tribute to the women who have had an influence on his life and his music. The album includes songs by celebrated female performers and songwriters alongside a clutch of Shaw's own original songs. In addition to his other talents the man is also a highly talented and evocative songwriter. It's an album that takes its inspiration from both art and politics, celebrating the former, despairing at the latter – the refugee crisis, the election of Trump etc.

I have been fortunate enough to see Shaw performing live on a couple of occasions, the first a solo performance at the Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival back in 2011 where I remember being impressed by both his singing and his dazzling repartee.

More recently I enjoyed his appearance at the 2017 wall2wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny, a highly entertaining duo performance that featured the singer accompanied by the versatile and highly skilled pianist Barry Green. This was in early September and the duo's repertoire included a number of pieces from the then still to be released Shine Sister Shine.

The new album features Green as part of a quartet featuring Shaw, bassist Mick Hutton and drummer/percussionist Dave Ohm, essentially Shaw's regular working group.

The album commences with Shaw's own Carry On World (Starring Everyone), a song that was performed at Abergavenny. Here Shaw plays the piano himself with Green on Rhodes and guest Joe Leach adding a dash of Hammond organ. The music is an appealing amalgam of jazz, pop and soul with an infectious, funk flavoured groove. The streetwise lyrics are inspired by some of the women Shaw has encountered in recent years through his work in the voluntary sector, detailing individual stories of courage and defiance while also highlighting the plight of the estimated five million female refugees in the world.

I Don't Know Enough About You, jointly written by Dave Barbour and Peggy Lee moves the music into more obvious jazz territory with Shaw's singing taking inspiration from the late, great Mark Murphy. Here Shaw's flexibility and intelligence as a jazz singer becomes apparent through via his inventive, elastic phrasing. Green shines with a wryly imaginative piano solo while Hutton and Green lay down a suitably supple and flexible groove.

Himself a native of North Wales, Shaw has performed with the Welsh born singer and songwriter Judith Owen, now a resident of the US. Owen's melodically lilting, lyrically perceptive Trip And Tumble was included at Abergavenny and appears in full band form here with Green doubling on acoustic piano and Rhodes while Hutton provides a succinct, melodic bass solo.

This Beautiful Life, written by the Sheffield born folk singer Julie Matthews, is given an imaginative soul jazz arrangement with a funk undertow that almost makes the song sound American. Green again doubles on Rhodes with Leach appearing on Hammond once more. It's a tribute to Shaw's interpretive skills that the song, with its simultaneously celebratory and self deprecating lyrics works so well in this new context. And of course it's a tribute to the quality and adaptability of Matthews' songwriting too.

The title track, a co-write by Shaw and Tanita Tikaram, relies on inventive variations of a repeated lyrical phrase (reminiscent of Peter Hammill's A Way Out), the mood building from wistful to celebratory thanks to a gospel infused arrangement featuring electric keyboards and Shaw's multi-tracked vocals.

Keep Walking (Song for Sara) was another piece performed at Abergavenny. After the show, a bucket collection was held in support of Side By Side With Refugees. Shaw's emotive, self-penned song addresses the subject with music, the lyrics telling the tale of Sara, an Eritrean refugee, stranded in Calais. There's a genuine compassion in Shaw's words and vocal performance, the instrumentalists also buying into the story with their sensitive, lyrical accompaniment.

A brief, but briskly swinging, rendition of How Little We Know, co-written by Philip Springer and Carolyn Leigh and associated with Frank Sinatra, returns us to jazz hipster territory with Shaw again demonstrating his mastery of this kind of vocalising via his audacious phrasing and essential all-round joyousness. There's also a scintillating acoustic piano solo from Green for the listener to enjoy too.

Shaw and his colleagues deliver a delightful ballad performance of contemporary singer/songwriter Gwyneth Herbert's Not The Girl For You with Hutton's melodic bass playing a prominent part in the arrangement.

One of the biggest surprises at the Abergavenny performance was the inclusion of the Alicia Keys hit Empire State Of Mind (New York), that great modern paean to the city. Shaw retains the essential spirit and vitality of the song while treating it to a jazz influenced arrangement that finds room for a sparkling piano solo from Green. Shaw has spent time in New York and his performance here suggests that he has a real affinity for the city.

Another unlikely inclusion is Shaw's interpretation of Touch Your Soul, written by the late American singer, songwriter and guitarist Phoebe Snow (1950-2011). Introduced by Ohm's drums and featuring Leach's Hammond in the arrangement, Snow's lyrics address an inveterate womaniser and the shallowness of his relationships – “you need someone to touch your soul,” she concludes.

Shaw has always been a great admirer of the work of Joni Mitchell and in 2006 he released Drawn To All Things, an album dedicated to interpretations of her material. At Abergavenny he and Green performed Mitchell's In France They Kiss On Main Street. For this album we get to enjoy a beautiful performance of the Mitchell song Shine, the title track of her 2007 album. The lyrics effectively combine tenderness with evocative imagery and perceptive social comment.

The album concludes with Shaw's solo performance of Carly Simon's Coming Around Again, featuring his vocals and piano. In this sparse, slowed setting one can truly appreciate Shaw's skills as an interpreter of the material of others.

My review copy CD includes a bonus track, an alternative version Keep Walking titled Marche Loin, sung convincingly by Shaw in French.

Apparently other formats – i.e. LP and digital – also include Shaw's interpretation of the song A Horse Called Janis Joplin composed by the vocalist and songwriter Sarah Jane Morris. Also available in these formats only is the song On Sunday Afternoons in 1963 by Rickie Lee Jones.

Although it's disappointing not to hear all the bonus tracks, the CD edition of Shine Sister Shine is an excellent work in its own right. While the idea of a male singer interpreting songs written by women may be subject to a degree of scepticism or misunderstanding, Shaw has both the technical ability and the moral and ethical integrity to make the project succeed. As a singer and performer he has both the chops and the personality to make these songs his own and he exhibits a genuine solidarity with his subjects, both the female songwriters whose work he interprets and the women, such as Sara, that he writes about in his own highly accomplished and literate songs.

With its intelligent blend of jazz, pop and soul Shine Sister Shine is an album that should be enjoyed by discerning music fans, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. With its wide-ranging and eclectic choice of material it's an album capable of considerable across-the-board, if not quite mainstream, appeal.

Shaw is currently engaged in a brief residency at the Pizza Express Jazz Club at 10 Dean Street, Soho, London where he will be appearing with a variety of artists between 24th and 28th January 2018. Check him out, he's a supremely entertaining performer.