Album Review: The Theory Of Joy

The Telegraph

Ivan Hewett, 24th February 2016


Jazz singer Ian Shaw is almost too talented for his own good. He's such a brilliant vocal chameleon, so sharp and sassy at the piano, so good at playing the jokey compère to other people's acts, you could wonder whether there's any real feeling under all the cleverness.

As this album proves, there's actually more heart in Ian Shaw's cleverness than in many singers who wear their hearts conspicuously on their sleeves. It has a wonderful variety of material, all the way from Lionel Bart's You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two to Traffic's 1971 song The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. As the style changes, so does the sound of Shaw's voice, to an astonishing degree. The amusingly just-crawled-out-of-bed tiredness of Bob Dorough's Small Day Tomorrow is miles from the slinky seductiveness of Cy Coleman's You Fascinate Me, which is miles away from the achingly tender My Brother, written by Shaw in memory of his brother Gareth, who died before the singer was born (this is one of three songs which prove Shaw is also no mean composer). Every song inhabits its own world, which makes such a refreshing change when so many singers manage to make everything sound the same.

Shaw can achieve this emotional focus partly because he's released from keyboard duties by Benny Green, the pianist in Shaw's trio. Green's solo breaks are always original, but he's even more impressive when backing Ian's twists and turns – as in You Fascinate Me, where his little runs down the piano echo Shaw's indulgently ecstatic moans. Here and there Shaw can seem mannered. In his otherwise tenderly effective version of Bowie's Where Are We Now, his sudden flip into head tone is just too virtuoso; you notice the vocal dexterity, and stop listening to the song. And it has to be said Shaw's harsh, somewhat curdled voice is very highly flavoured and will fail the Marmite test for some. But for musical sophistication and emotional intelligence Shaw and his trio leave most of their peers at the starting gate.