What's new? Not the dozen songs on this enchanting trio album. Most of them have been around for well over fifty years and people will likely still be enjoying them in another fifty. The composers include Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Van Heusen, Michel Legrand and Leonard Bernstein. Musically sophisticated and lyrically literate, the allure of their songs seems to grow, not fade, with age.
What's New was recorded by vocalist Ian Shaw and tenor saxophonist Iain Ballamy, two of the brightest stars of Britain's class of the late-1980s jazz generation. They are accompanied by hot young London pianist Jamie Safir. No bass, no drums. Frequent collaborators, Shaw and Ballamy first recorded together in 1992; chiming with particular resonance to What's New is the pair's work on Shaw's drummerless-quartet album, In A New York Minute (Milestone, 1999). Like Shaw and Ballamy, Safir is well known to London audiences, either leading his own trio or as an accompanist. He pays the rent by playing with pop megastar Will Young.
The longevity of the songs on What's New might well have surprised their composers (of whom only Bacharach is still with us in 2020). They were conceived, after all, as commercial pop songs and were not necessarily expected to last. But they have continued to delight succeeding generations of musicians and listeners. Take the title track as an example. Originally an instrumental called I'm Free, it was written in 1938 by Bob Haggart for Bob Crosby's Dixieland band. Lyrics were added later by Johnny Burke. Numerous vocal versions include landmark ones by Helen Merrill (with Clifford Brown) and Billie Holiday (with Benny Carter). Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal and John Coltrane are among the many who have recorded instrumental versions. It appears on live albums by Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, the Modern Jazz Quartet and even… Cecil Taylor. In 1983, the song was the title track of a collection of standards released by Linda Ronstadt. How long have you got?
What's New was recorded live in the studio in spring 2019 and the three-day process was, says Shaw, 'pure joy'. So is listening to it.