BZ Interviews
Spotlight on: Ian Shaw

This award-winning jazz vocalist, producer, pianist, comedian and journalist is a Crazy Coqs regular whose career has seen him travel the world, playing at venues both intimate and large, as well as making several acclaimed albums, including his latest, Greek Street Friday. He shares his passions and career highlights with us…

Why does music mean so much to you?

I grew up in a musical family in North Wales – my mum played the piano and my dad was a cornet and trumpet player, so I suppose you could say it’s in the blood. I started my own career playing piano bars, becoming part of the capital’s alternative scene, before fronting my own band. Now, playing at Zédel, I feel I’ve come full circle. It’s an intimate space, while retaining a concert feel. My current show takes a nostalgic look at the musical singles I grew up with – every single artist within that collection, from David Bowie to John Coltrane, has influenced my approach in one way or another.

How would you describe your musical style?

I hope that it’s original and never an impersonation of anyone else’s, but of course there’s so much that I’ve listened to that has shaped my own performance, whether that’s Aretha Franklin’s phrasing, the obscurity of Bowie or the timeless lyrics of some 1960s and 1970s songwriters. Above all though, I’m known as a jazz singer – that’s the epithet that’s stuck! I suppose my work blends soulful storytelling with humour and political awareness. If I can make people laugh, think or feel moved, I’ve done my job.

How do music, nostalgia and comedy intertwine in your performances?

All of those elements are naturally there, because my sets involve communication with the audience – that’s the joy of performing at an intimate venue. So in that sense, it’s easy to build in a free-flowing dialogue, where music, laughter and conversation co-exist. And of course, music itself is so evocative – it has the power to move and to remind an audience of big moments in their own lives, whether falling in love, breaking up, grieving or experiencing joy. Those emotions are part of growing up too, which is why my current show evokes a feeling of nostalgia.

Tell us how your career has evolved over the years?

Because I played, sang, enjoyed comedy and had a political point of view, I found myself on the alternative cabaret circuit in the early days, alongside acts like French & Saunders, Julian Clary and Rory Bremner. I loved it, but eventually, I followed a jazz direction and started playing regularly at Ronnie Scott’s with a nine-piece band, and writing albums. My career has taken me all over the world and enabled me to play in large venues and small – the joy of the albums that I’ve created is that they can be experienced just through piano and voice or via a bigger band. That has given me so much flexibility. I have a soft spot for that piano bar style, delivered so brilliantly by artists like Billy Joel or Carole King.

What have been your highlights over the years and why?

I’m very lucky that my performance life is so diverse, from sets at Crazy Coqs to playing with big bands at the Royal Albert Hall. Other highlights include being signed to an American jazz label and working with Quincy Jones. I have a big repertoire at this stage of my career, which means that I can play so much and therefore adapt performances to my surroundings. Every couple of years or so, I’ve released an album and for a long time I hosted Radio 2’s Big Band Special. Of course, a personal highlight was having my own musical parents come and see me perform on many occasions. I’ve been immensely lucky.