Pizza Express Dean Street, 21st January 2016
Fine, eclectic new album launched with sparkling live show
Many jazz singers are known for an instantly recognisable tone. Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong are known the moment they open their mouth, for a particular quality of delivery. Jazz singer and comedian Ian Shaw, who launched his 14th album at Pizza Express Jazz Club last night, works differently. His best performances are about the blend of comedian's timing and musician's tone, and once he'd warmed up last night, there were tears and giggles aplenty.
His new album combines originals and an eclectic collection of covers, and they give the incredible versatility of his vocal range full rein. Can anyone else croon, scat, growl and sing falsetto, all with great comic timing? My Brother, one of the originals, which was inspired by Shaw's charitable work in the Calais jungle, is a serious piece, and here a kind of legato sincerity brought out the human warmth of a fine lyric.
Mood, both musical and moral, turned on their toes when he sang Lionel Bart's You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, but he spat out the staccato syllables with satirical relish. (I assume the purpose is social satire…) Shaw's new version of Bowie's Where Are We Now? didn't work quite so well. Bowie's crisp, poignant articulation is difficult for anyone to match, and the original version, with electronic backing and minimalist vocals, is both powerful and subtle. A jazz trio is the wrong instrument.
The album includes a new version of Jacques Brel's Ne me quitte pas, sung mostly in English, with both lyrics and music quite heavily adapted, and the more conversational tone of this version lifts the pounding melodrama of the original into a discussion that's wistful rather than wrist-slitting about what the speaker will miss. It's a very beautiful, imaginative adaptation - but it wasn't sung last night, more's the pity.
In addition to the new material, there was a broadly comic rendition of the obscure blues song Take Out Your False Teeth Mama (Papa Wants to Scratch Your Gums), which Shaw claims was taught him by George Melly, while drunk at the Cleethorpes International Jazz Festival. Shaw regulars will have heard the story before, but it bears many repetitions. It's a song probably full of antique obscenity, but the euphemisms have been lost in the mists of time. It's good to be reminded now and again of the scabrous, saloon-bar origins of this music.
He has a very fine band, who support him admirably both live and on the recording. They are particularly strong in the sensitivity of their dynamic responses, which is important with Shaw, because his sense of drama requires very sudden shifts. They are, all the same, a jazz piano trio, and both in form and style are musically evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Shaw still performs purely as a comedian, and has the spontaneity to incorporate a distraction of almost any size into the performance. I've seen him address an entire stag party, who'd crashed in very late to one of his residency gigs at the Vortex Jazz Club; without missing a beat, they were welcomed in song, and the groom got his own serenade, off the cuff. Last night it was simply the staff in the restaurant upstairs moving the chairs noisily, but he paused the lyrics of the song, riffed on the similar distraction caused by hearing your Travelodge neighbours fucking, and continued the song, without a pause.
There is a quotation much in evidence on Shaw's publicity material from Time Out, describing him as "Simply, our finest jazz singer". Whatever that means. There are some other very witty jazz singers (Joe Stilgoe, take a bow), and more again who have Shaw's vocal versatility (Anita Wardell, perhaps). But I'm pretty sure there's no one else who combines these skills with a comedian's timing and adaptability. This is what he really is, as this album, but above all, his live performances, demonstrate: Britain's most entertaining jazz singer. Which is a fine thing to be.