Music Matters: Ian Shaw Interview

The world of jazz and specifically piano jazz is rich, deep and mysterious and amidst the mystery of the jazz lifestyle there is abundance of talent and charisma from artists across the world. Today we speak to one such name, Ian Shaw ahead of him playing in Cambridge this December with the Cambridge Modern Jazz group about his extensive career, why jazz matters and his views on music today.

To begin with, we asked Ian where his musical beginnings came from and why he gravitated towards the realm of jazz.

Ian Shaw – Photo: Lisa Wormsley

“I come from a very musical family, my dad played cornet in a brass band so music has always been in my family. I vividly remember my mother ironing to Family Favourites on the radio so we always had big band music and the jazzier end of things in our household. As well as other things like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, T-Rex when I was younger.

I started off by playing keyboards around the Northern clubs, which my dad made possible. I’ve actually been actively gigging since I was probably about 12 or 13, then I came to London to study music and play and things just escalated from there. From there I got a gig with my band Brave New World at Ronnie Scott’s and Ronnie Scott himself sort of nurtured me and said I should sing jazz and the rest is history really!

Ronnie blended jazz and comedy brilliantly well, he would often tell jokes to get the audience on side then the music is easier to present in a way, so I learned an awful lot from Ronnie. He made it okay to combine music and humour, which I still do in almost any performance I do today!”

Music means many things to many people and jazz in particular has a brilliant heritage that is typically derived from suffering or pain. We asked Ian how he utilises this history within his own music and what jazz means to him and his creative process.

“I think you ask anyone who grew up in this country, jazz is still considered this sort of borrowed art form from black American music. The histroy of jazz does go back to slavery, the church, the blues, all of those early pioneers came from those kinds fo backgrounds pre-segregation. When it became a radio thing, a lot of European and white players picked it up and added their own bits, so you started seeing European classical instruments like the saxophone being seen more. From there it branched out into rock, bop, R&B and all other kinds of areas.

Photo: Gerhard Richter

For me, jazz is a glorious soup of influencences. I, like a lot of other jazz singers, love to go back to very early simple jazz song structure because they’re just brilliant to improvise over. To me jazz really is a whole church, and that’s what I really love about it. I like the space that is available to be able to improve and play with other people on stage. Some consider jazz to be the foundation of surprise, well I think that it is true, but it’s done so over a brilliant bed of discipline.”

Ian operates not only has a solo performer with just his voice and a piano, but also vocalises brilliantly as part of groups and brings a divine level of comedy and personality to each show he does. We asked Ian not only how these two styles of performance differ, but also what drew him to solo performing with the piano.

“MONEY! No, in all honesty I very fast realised after university that I could just go out there solo and without a band as a solo pianist instead of needing to rely on other people. For me, the thing about playing the piano and singing is that it is part of an age-old tradition of being as powerful as a band, but also puts the performer in complete control of every aspect of the music. When I’m composing a narrative comedy piece for example, with the music in my complete control, its really exciting to do a show on my own.

However, I equally love playing with my band as well and I don’t play piano with them, so the two are very contrasting, but I love the interaction between myself and other players…When I’m on my own it’s quite hard to surprise myself! 

Many consider jazz to be an inaccessible art form, and especially for the modern musician, it can be difficult to know where to start with the world of jazz, we asked Ian for his insider tips to breaking into the jazz world, as both an artist and a listener: 

“Just get out there! Get on the scene, try to engender projects that come from yourself and meet other, more experienced musicians. There’s a healthy live scene that is gradually coming back into focus after the pandemic, but more importantly than that, there’s jam sessions all over the place. At Ronnie Scott’s for example, there’s this thing called The Late Late Show which is brilliant to go and not only be invited on stage with your instrument, but also to meet like minded people who are in the same boat. That’s where all these exciting projects and new bands all appear from. My advice is just to get out there and do it!

If you’re performing, get your chops together, write new arrangements, collaborate with people just to create something new and exciting. Some of my favorite artists from today are still combining historical jazz with something new, be it funk, soul, groove or anything that reflects your personality.

The main thing is don’t end up just sitting around waiting for things to happen!”

After the pandemic, many artists are finally beginning to pick up where they left off and begin touring, collaborating and experimenting with their sound in public once more. We asked Ian his plans for the next year and the best places to stay up to date with what he’s up to!

What’s New with Ian Shaw, Jamie Safir and Iain Ballamy – Photo: Lisa Wormsley

“Firstly, I’m picking up a tour that we were supposed to be doing last year, but was delayed. So that’s a collaboration between me, a brilliant pianist called Jamie Safir and the legendary Iain Ballamy. We’ve written an album called ‘What’s New’, and that’s a sort of emotional, almost lullaby like because I’m known for almost not doing songs like that!

We picked up the first part of the tour a few months ago and are finishing the rest of the tour in March. In January I do my London Soho residency with special guests from all over the world, with people flying in from America, Canada and other well known faces in the UK jazz scene. 

I also do a project called ‘When Bowie met Joni’ which is really fun, that’s an arrangement of David Bowie and Joni Mitchell songs that are sort of woven together with this narrative. 

Also my podcast, is going into its third series now, it’s called Not Even Music and the new series is out next week, my first guest is Joe Rayner. It’s basically me reading my book out but with interactive guests and it’s tonnes of fun to do!”

Don’t forget to catch Ian play at St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church on 10th December with the Cambridge Modern Jazz Club here!

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