Having made his transatlantic breakthrough with his 1999 Milestone debut, In a New York Minute, British vocalist Ian Shaw sustains the momentum with Soho Stories, a collection of 13 songs ranging from the classic minor blues of "Comes Love” and such standards as "How Little We Know” and "If You Could See Me Now” to unexpected forays into such contemporary pop material as Janis Ian’s "Ruby” and Tom Waits’s "Rainbow Sleeves.” Again produced by Todd Barkan, Soho Stories shows why England’s most heralded jazz singer stands on the cusp of becoming one of America’s favorites, as well. Shaw has been described in the New York Times as having "complete emotional control of the classic jazz-idiom standards,” and in Cadence as possessing "a buttery sound and a real Jazz singer’s ability to improvise along instrumental lines.”
The native of North Wales had already recorded five acclaimed solo CDs in London, starting with 1992’s Ghostsongs: Ian Shaw Live at Ronnie Scott’s, before he made his first U.S. tour in 1997 and signing with Milestone two years later. But Shaw turned to singing only after dedicating himself first to trumpet and piano. "My dad played cornet in a brass band,” he explains, "and I sang a bit at school, but I was chucked out of every choir going because my voice was too loud. I studied piano and trumpet and sang a bit at college, but it wasn’t until the last year that I really started concentrating on voice and then I started singing in pubs.” Especially inventive with rhythm and melody, Shaw traces development of his jazz instincts back to the vinyl LPs his father would bring home in the early 1970s from his job as a "removal man,” clearing houses of junk and cast-offs. "I got all these Aretha Franklin records from the early Seventies, where Aretha just sort of mangled the tunes,” Shaw recalls with a laugh. "In Wales, we sing the tune, very loud, but I learned how to never sing the tune. Years later, Mark Murphy said to me, ‘Sing the tune, then go somewhere with it.’”
When he focused on his soulful baritone-tenor voice as his primary musical instrument, Shaw found a relatively wide-open field in England. "I started singing more and more,” he recalls, "and because there were no geezers around singing jazz, no blokes doing it, I got all the attention from the press quite early on. From then on I started getting more interested in the American songbook, and that’s the road I’ve pursued, trying to respect it and deconstruct it as well. I also did some acting for a while, which was very helpful in terms of storytelling and being part of an ensemble, which of course is vital in jazz.”
A longtime fan of Mel Tormé (his father’s favorite singer) and Sarah Vaughan, who captivated him during an appearance at Ronnie Scott’s famous club in London’s Soho district, Shaw quickly came into his own, setting himself apart from his legendary forebears. After a stint in one of England’s most popular soul bands of the late Eighties, Brave New World, he settled into his identity as a jazz singer, appearing regularly at Ronnie Scott’s and became, according to London’s Time Out, "the vocal find of the decade.” After the release of In a New York Minute, on which Shaw was co-billed with pianist Cedar Walton, The American Reporter wrote that Shaw "reminds us that there was a rich—if narrow—stream of bop and post-bop male vocalists; he is well informed by Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Leon Thomas and Mark Murphy.... Shaw takes the best innovations of these predecessors and grounds them in a bluesy foundation... broadened to include the more soul-flavored dances and blues nuances of Ray Charles and Charles Brown.”
In making Soho Stories, Shaw tapped his longtime pianist and musical director to anchor every track except "Rainbow Sleeves,” on which Shaw accompanies himself, and "Be Sure I’ll Let You Know,” which features Cedar Walton, who wrote the music and turned it over to Shaw for lyrics. "Cedar’s music is very easy to set word to because he writes such good tunes.” Completing the rhythm section on the new album are Mark Fletcher, whom Shaw calls "the most creative jazz drummer in England,” and bassist Chip Jackson. "I asked for Chip,” Shaw says, "because I admired his work with Elvin Jones.” Trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Bob Kindred, trombonist Papo Vazquez, flutist Steve Rubie, and guitarist Joe Beck all make appearances, as well, mostly at producer Barkan’s suggestion. "Of course without Todd, I wouldn’t have been able to have these recording opportunities at all,” Shaw notes.
The singer admittedly approached Soho Stories with a more relaxed and confident attitude than he brought to In a New York Minute. "Doing the first one was a fantastic experience,” he explains, "but it was quite nerve-wracking for me, because I suppose I was a bit in awe of Cedar—I have all his recordings and he’s my favorite piano player. Also, I thought, ‘Oh good, new record, new songs.’ But that meant they were freshly arranged and I hadn’t had a chance to put them on the road. With this one I gigged the songs for six months before I recorded them, so I was very comfortable with the way I was handling them. Moreover, I deliberately chose songs that were pertinent to where I am in my life... except I haven’t become a hooker, as in ‘Ruby,’” he adds with a laugh. Shaw’s decision to record "Ruby” and "Rainbow Sleeves” underscores his affinity for contemporary tunesmiths. "It has to be said, the American singer-songwriters come first in terms of content,” he says. "I’m a huge fan of Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, as well as Betty Carter and Mel Tormé.”
One of Shaw’s most striking characteristics may be his vocal facility and expressiveness at every tempo. On Soho Stories, he works with equal authority at a breakneck gallop ("Happy with the Blues,” "If You Could See Me Now”) and a breathless crawl ("I Never Went Away,” "How Little We Know,” "Tomorrow Never Came”). "I think both extremes present a challenge—for any musician,” he notes. "It’s hard to play very fast and it’s hard to play very slow. I love improvising over fast swing, floating over the top of the rhythm section, like a bebop tenor player would, I suppose. When it goes fast it has almost a half pulse, I love the interaction between the drums and the voice. And as for the slow, you can really take people into your storytelling. I’ve probably stolen that notion from Shirley Horn; she counts the band in before she leaves the dressing room.”
On every song, however, Shaw was aware of making a permanent document that is different from a live performance. "I think when you record, you are creating something immortal, a moment suspended in time, and you have to strike a balance and maintain a kind of linear clarity. So I probably don’t push as much as I would in a club, where I like to take off for three or four choruses. But, hey, come to the gigs and I’ll push it further.” Already defying stereotypes and breaking new ground for male jazz vocalists, Ian Shaw can be expected keep pushing beyond existing boundaries for years to come.