Ian Shaw: Hung Up the Most

Welsh singer pays tribute to lyricist Fran Landesman

In the mid-’80s, when Ian Shaw was just starting out as a vocalist, working London’s anti-establishment alternative cabaret circuit and singing what he describes as “semi-political comedy songs,” he found himself in a band with Miles Davis.

Miles Davis Landesman, that is, named after the trumpeter by his expat American parents, author and impresario Jay and poet and songwriter Fran. The latter is best known for her 1950s partnership with Tommy Wolf, which produced “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”

The band would rehearse in the basement of the Landesmans’ rambling North London home, and Shaw often spent the night. “I’d sleep in this bohemian living room with a piano,” the 50-year-old singer recalls. “One morning I found the sheet music to ‘Spring’ and started playing it. Fran lived in bed, with the TV and a lot of weed. She rarely got up for the last 25 years of her life. But she got up, came downstairs and said, ‘Who’s playing my songs?'” Thus began what he calls “a lovely friendship, not constant, but no friendships with Fran ever were.”

In the years since, the Welsh-born Shaw, widely recognized as one of the finest male jazz singers of his generation and also a gifted producer, arranger, actor and comedian, has often recorded Landesman’s songs. Her “In a New York Minute” served as the title track for his 1999 New York session with pianist Cedar Walton. Two years later, “Tomorrow Never Came” was featured on his Soho Stories, and both “Just Having Fun” and “Scars” were included on his 2009 ballads album, Somewhere Towards Love. All four were co-written by celebrated British composer, arranger and pianist Simon Wallace, Landesman’s constant collaborator for 17 years, right up until her death last year at age 83. Their shared output runs to more than 500 songs.

Now Shaw and Wallace have united for A Ghost in Every Bar: The Lyrics of Fran Landesman (Splash Point). The 15-track, career-long survey showcases the two hit collaborations with Wolf and “Small Day Tomorrow,” written with Bob Dorough, but focuses primarily on material penned with Wallace. Those tracks include fresh treatments of “In a New York Minute” and “Scars.” Says Shaw’s pal Jamie Cullum of the project, “Ian is the perfect person to tackle Fran’s songs, ’cause he is funny, talented, intelligent and incredibly rude-just like Fran was!”

This isn’t the first time Shaw has paid album-length tribute to a female tunesmith. In 1997, he produced, arranged and sang with Barb Jungr on Uneasy Street, a salute to British film, stage and TV composer BB Cooper. Nine years later, he turned his attention to Canada’s foremost female songwriter, releasing the acclaimed Drawn to All Things: The Songs of Joni Mitchell. “Fran liked that album of Ian’s a lot,” says Wallace. “It was always on her stereo. She was a big fan of Joni Mitchell’s. If you asked her which songwriters she admired, Joni Mitchell and Cole Porter would always be mentioned.”

Shaw’s own admiration for Mitchell stems, he says, from “the beauty of her poetry and the absolute truth of it. She says exactly what she feels.” He holds Landesman’s lyrics in similar esteem. “Fran really digs in and isn’t afraid to say things that aren’t typically examined in art, and certainly not in popular songs. Her songs are so easy to sing and yet so difficult. I remember standing in her garden with Annie Ross and Fran saying, ‘There’s always one fucking verse you can’t sing in my lyrics.’ It’s true. I’ve taken verses out because they are un-singable. But Annie [corroborated] that there’s also always a line that completely breaks your heart. I love that kind of visceral quality that goes through all of Fran’s work. It’s like [a piece of] elastic pulled tight that could snap at any minute.”

Shaw and Wallace’s long association dates back to the singer’s 1997 album, The Echo of a Song , which Wallace produced and plays on. “We’re mates,” says Shaw, “so it seemed the right thing to have Simon play on [this new] album. He is a great solo accompanist, and they’re his tunes, so he knows how they should sound.” The decision to make it just voice and piano wasn’t premeditated. “I went around to Simon’s and sifted through hundreds of songs that he wanted me to hear, including “Killing Time,” “Only Why No More” and “Noir,” which Jamie [Cullum] had done a demo of. I said, ‘Let’s not be too particular. Let’s arrange them on the spot,’ which is what we did. If we’d done it with a band, it would have been a lot more complicated. Fran used to throw lots of parties, and someone would jump up and play her old piano. The whole idea of the album was to capture that same sort of barroom, late-night quality.”

All 15 tracks were completed in just two afternoons, most in one take. “Ian’s not a great one for rehearsals,” Wallace notes. “He does everything on the spur of the moment. Arranging for him is very easy, because all you need to do is set him up and give him enough space.” Only once do Shaw and Wallace include another musician, adding flugelhornist Sue Richardson on the end track, “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” It is the perfect closer because, says Shaw with a laugh, “all of Fran’s ballads are of sad young men, and having flugel on it, with that sort of mournful comping, felt really right.”