Album Review: The Theory Of Joy

Matt Ruddick, 13th February 2016


Fine, well paced set, mixing some unexpected covers and delightful originals.

Reading the title of Ian Shaw's new album, one might be forgiven for expecting an upbeat, uplifting collection, but Mr. Shaw has tongue planted firmly in cheek, and merely wanted to suggest that happiness is rarely portrayed in art. The songs do address a variety of challenging subjects, from social inequality to his own feelings for his older brother, who passed away before he was born, but there is plenty of wit and humour on offer too.

Ian Shaw grew up listening to jazz standards, before discovering some of the great singer-songwriters of the 1970s, and these influences can clearly be heard. However, his own songs hold up well in this exalted company, and the first single from the album, My Brother, may well be one of the best songs you'll hear this year.

Ian's last solo album, A Ghost In Every Bar (2012), featured the songs of Fran Landesman, perhaps best known for her song, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. The new album opens with a jaunty version of Small Day Tomorrow, a tune she co-wrote by Bob Dorough that appeared on his album of the same name in 2006. The song is driven by the swinging piano of Barry Green, who also takes a fine solo. Track two is Cy Coleman's You Fascinate Me So, which is taken at a more relaxed pace, and allows us to enjoy the warm, rich tone of Shaw's voice and the superb lyrics.

Tracks three and four see Shaw move to singer-songwriter territory. He recorded an album of Joni Mitchell songs back in 2006, and here sings her tale of misunderstood youth, In France They Kiss On Main Street. The song works well in a jazz trio setting, with Shaw's voice impressive in the higher register, and Green again shining on piano. Better still is Bowie's Where Are We Now? – which is one of the album's many highlights. Shaw's singing is achingly beautiful – the way he holds the notes longer than you expect, halfway through the song, and the power of his voice as the song draws to a close. The subtle, brushed drums of Dave Ohm are also worthy of mention.

Everything was composed by Paul Williams, who wrote We've Only Just Begun and Evergreen, and more recently collaborated with Daft Punk. Like Evergreen, Everything can be found on the soundtrack to A Star Is Born. Shaw relishes in the witty lyrics, his trip providing the perfect support.

Of the three self-composed songs, My Brother is the undoubted highlight. Shaw has used the accompanying video to draw attention to the plight of the migrants in Calais, for whom he has worked so selflessly in recent months. You can read more about what he has learned and how you can help in our recent interview here. Leaving this aside, it's hard not to be moved by the beauty of the melody and the bittersweet lyrics, written for the brother he never knew. Somewhere Towards Love was the title of Shaw's 2009 album for Splash Point, and the song is reworked here for the trio – rather than solo piano. The band leaves plenty of space for the lyrics to breath, and the new arrangement works well.

Traffic's The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys is perhaps less effective in a jazz setting, but Brel/McKuen's If You Go Away/Ne Me Quitte Pas is lovely, and sung in both English and French. Shaw does not attempt to inject the drama of Scott Walker or Nina Simone, but sticks closer to the poetry of Brel's original.

Finally, there are two songs to mention which perhaps work better in the context of the album, rather than as stand-alone songs. Lionel Bart's You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two is not my favourite song, but works surprisingly well in a jazz trio format, and also as social commentary, given concerns over the low tax rates being paid by certain corporates. All This And Betty Too is a tribute to Betty Carter, and played as a fast-paced be-bop tune. Whilst it is quite different in style to the rest of the album, it does cleanse the palate between two rather lovely ballads.

Surprisingly, this is Shaw's first trio recording – given that he regularly tours with his own trio, but he assembled a fine band for the occasion - Barry Green on piano, Mick Hutton on bass, and Dave Ohm on drums.

To my mind The Theory Of Joy is Shaw's best album yet – a well paced set, mixing some unexpected covers and excellent originals – and an early contender for one of the jazz albums of the year. Highly recommended.