Even Joni Mitchell wasn’t spared an affectionate ribbing, as jazz singer Ian Shaw continued his Joni at 70 Tour with a combination of sincerity and satire, both red-raw, in the Elgar Room last night. Stripping pretensions compulsively, Shaw gave an engrossingly witty performance of the work of the great singer once known, we learnt, as “Moany Mitchell” in the young Shaw’s household.
Mitchell’s lover James Taylor’s nasal delivery was ruthlessly sent up, as was Sir Elton John, on whose shiny red piano, acquired for the Elgar Room in 2010, he was playing. (The lyrics of Shaw’s parody of “Candle in the Wind” cannot, alas, be published.) Above all, though he turned on himself: why, he wondered at one moment, were we listening to Joni’s love songs sung by “a bald, fat, middle-aged Welsh homosexual”?
Key to his effectiveness was his often-praised emotional control, which he moderated with swift and scintillating effect. Vocally, he switched between stage-whispered commentary, his principal singing voice (a wistfully light baritone), to scat, and falsetto, each one carrying a different mood. His piano playing, likewise, combined romantic melody, then, while singing, a mixture of confident, punched chords and mournful, feathery decoration.
His choice of Mitchell’s songs was broad, both thematically and chronologically, though few songs survived the evening unaltered, unmocked or uncommented upon. (For Joni fans seeking a straighter set of adaptations, there’s always Shaw’s well-received 2006 album, Drawn to All Things.) Sometimes this took the form of mid-chorus asides, though he wasn’t afraid of more drastic alteration: “Big Yellow Taxi” was heavily condensed; the result was refreshingly vivid.
As the evening progressed, extra forces (of varying quality) came to the stage. The young talent included pianist Jamie Safiruddin, a 22 year-old Guildhall student, who played “Edith and the Kingpin” with exquisite poise. Emerging American artist Brendan Reilly sang “You’ve Changed” with slightly overcooked soul inflections, but there was no arguing with his silky tone and gleaming top end. Gwyneth Herbert, similar to Shaw in her combination of vulnerability and defiance, joined in several numbers, her voice yearning and thrillingly intense.
The gleeful satire is, as well as being enjoyable in itself, an effective artistic strategy, Shaw’s way of stripping jazz singing of its cloying lacquer of cliché and zombie repetition. What’s left is vital, fresh, quick; we probably learnt more about the songs, too. Even an artist of Mitchell’s querulous disposition, would, you feel, have appreciated Shaw’s invigorating attentions.