on 8 August 2004
This album is now almost ten years old, and it is one to go back to. If the sound of Ian Shaw is a recent discovery and you've already heard and liked his recent releases, like Soho Stories or A World Still Turning, this sprightly and creative collection of Rodgers and Hart songs will help bridge the gap more than agreeably until the next recording appears by the man who sets all the standards now in British vocal jazz.
Why is it good? Well, for one thing, the sound is good. Shaw and his support got access to the stage at Ronnie Scott's for the recording. It's not a live set, so there is no audience that can distract more than add to that kind of "Live at..." record that was once so popular in jazz. But perhaps the setting provided that extra little inspiration when it came to invention for everyone in the team - from Shaw, certainly, but also the musicians and, on two tracks, fellow singers Mari Wilson and Carol Grimes.
Another thing strongly in this album's favour is the material. We perhaps know that, because Richard Rodgers wrote memorable melodies, although he did get stuck in a waltz groove quite often. And Lorenz Hart's lyrics were, at their best, filled with sublime wit and pathos, and with insights into the pains and joys of his coronary namesake that are on a level with a metaphysical poet, say, or charmed author. So that is how the world acquired a tune like "Little Girl Blue" - "all you can count on are the raindrops" - or the exquisite (and, strangely, seldom sung) "This Funny World" - "...is making fun of you". Hart could lighten the heaviness of loss, loneliness, lust or plain love without denying its burden.
All of which is significant for Shaw. Because there have been many Rodgers & Hart tributes, and how many are really worth listening to? But Shaw is a singer who sings the meaning in a lyric; he is a storyteller. Anyone who has heard him on disc or seen him perform live will know that Shaw is no Jackanory talesmith, but an interpreter able to weave the feeling and sense of song through a labyrinth of wonderful patterns, courtesy of his sophisticated musicality.
Consequently, Shaw steps into this territory with relish. "My Funny Valentine" is a song so well known that an audience is pardoned to groan when a cabaret chanteuse breaks into the, frankly silly, verse or overdoes the refrain (as they usually do)with reverence and pure schmaltz. Shaw exposes it to a decoration of aerial vocal designs that lift him through his range to the falsetto singing he can both control for effect and bring off convincingly. Some might describe this style as gimmickry; but although to the new listener it at first sounds odd, that's because it's unexpected. Pretty soon it's acknowledged as virtuosic, as being in place. So stay with it and reap the aural reward.
Shaw's talent was quickly manifested on his arrival on the scene in the late 1980s. It is a mystery that no Miss Marple could solve as to why his name is not immediately recognisable to a public that cares about music, whatever music, in this country. Hear "Have you met Miss Jones" on this collection, and ask yourself that question (the one about Shaw, not Miss Jones)because it combines musical dexterity, wit, creativity and imagination - and is jolly good to listen to! Or "My Romance" as a duet with Mari Wilson. Or the great soul ballad treatment of "With a song in my heart" that closes the recording and which recalls Shaw's origins in soul and blues, where he cut his teeth and honed that tenorish rasp that's a fine feature of his voice.
You can learn from this album. There are 13 tracks here, and almost an hour in which to play them all to yourself. Time well spent. There are fine arrangements by Adrian York, and appearances by Guy Barker, Iain Ballamy and Mornington Lockett, and tremendous driving play by the excellent Mark Fletcher on drums.
Take this to Hart. But before that, take this album to your checkout basket.