A Ghost in Every Bar: The Lyrics of Fran Landesman
Among lyricists, Fran Landesman was a master of mise en scène, framing immaculate, insightful playlets that could be witty, wicked, joyous or heartbreaking, often all at once. Landesman always delivered the unvarnished truth, simply yet eloquently stating the facts without fuss or frill, proving the plainest poetry can be the most beautiful and affecting.
Though just about every significant interpreter from Ella to Elling has sung Landesman’s lyrics, none suits her better than Ian Shaw. The Welsh vocalist remains the gentlest of troubadours and most nakedly magical of storytellers, like Landesman a dab hand at minimalist poignancy. Landesman’s first, and greatest, flush of success came in the 1950s when, teamed with Tommy Wolf, she shaped “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” both unfolded by Shaw with exquisite tenderness. Landesman subsequently partnered with Roy Kral, Georgie Fame, Tom Springfield, Dudley Moore and Bob Dorough, with whom she wrote the crafty gem “Small Day Tomorrow.” But her richest, most prolific collaboration was with British composer Simon Wallace, begun in 1994, continuing to her death last year, and resulting in over 300 songs.
With Wallace himself providing piano accompaniment, it is primarily the Landesman-Wallace oeuvre that Shaw traverses. From the comic sinfulness of “Feet Do Your Stuff” and devilish psychoanalysis of “Down” to the death rattle of “Killing Time” and keen social commentary of “In a New York Minute,” it is a marvelous journey through one of the superlative, if vastly underappreciated, songbooks of the past century.