The Olympian Duets
Live at Pizza Express, Soho
How to escape the mega-hyped opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games ? Work colleagues are hyper-excited about the whole event, our office base is smack bang in the middle of the upcoming main cycling event…the media is concerned with nothing else..TV in particular is banging on and on about Team GB…if Britain doesn’t get many medals this enthusiasm will morph into seething Anglo-anger, of course…it’s all too much for your scribe, who heads up to an almost-deserted London’s West End on a Friday evening in search of something cultural AND not competitive.
England’s finest singer (arguably) is holding court for two night’s at PE Dean Street and Friday is the second of two evenings that he has dubbed ‘Olympian Duets’, tongue in both cheeks one suspects. Few vocalists would pass on the chance to duet with Shaw, who looks like the younger and more mischievous brother of Father Brown, from the G K Chesterton detective tales. The two guest singers this evening arrive before the gig and spare a few moments to talk to me about working with Ian. Their contention that he will always ‘drop them in it’ by departing from the setlist at whim to do something extra and unplanned has me (temporarily) staring at my shoes, as I recall by own band members having exactly the same grouse. However, all present agree, it does make for an exciting and creative show…one suspects though that tonight, little will go wrong and if it does, Shaw’s spark and wit will come to the rescue.
Now I didn’t realise what a fine piano player/accompanist Ian Shaw is. Deftly running all over the keyboard, throwing in passing chords, harmonies on the melody and sharp counterpoints, this isn’t moderate, safe musical backing but a set of sonic shapes bringing all the necessary qualities of the material to the fore, for the glorious singing. If you know how the mighty Ralph Sharon backed Tony Bennett that’s what we are talking about here. The material ? it’s all over the place, and that’s the idea. My first surprise this evening has been a set of low flying aircraft whooshing over my head in Oxford Street at eleven minutes past eight ; I later find that this was the Red Arrows about to cruise over a Duran Duran show down the road at 20:12 pm (geddit?). But the next was Shaw’s pianistic dexterity. And the evening is off to a good start
Clearly Ian has the repertoire to do a different show every night wherever he goes ; he is due to present a new show he has devised at the pending Edinburgh Festival. Tonight he spins into ‘Feet Do Yer Stuff’ (dedicated to the 200 metres, he deadpans – clearly the night’s Games-links will be of dubious authenticity. He realises that if we were at all interested in the goings on at Stratford, we wouldn’t be at this gig) in very Mose Allison mode before giving us the tumbling phrases of ‘Lullaby Of The Leaves’ and its rapid-fire lyrics evoking Hendricks, Lambert & Ross in their heyday. A vintage number next on ‘the song of sad young men. running from the truth’ and taken at an unhurried Sarah Vaughan tempo. Georgia Mancio is on stage for an Eckstine/Vaughan ‘Cheek To Cheek’. She looks regal, she sings like a young Rosemary Clooney. This really is working well
Now Urban Voices vocalist Janine Johnson has the look of a Nubian princess, modeling for a Miles Davis album painting perhaps and she sings with a soul diva’s vocal chords, BUT without the flared-nostril posing and other trappings. We are treated to Betty Carter’s ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ performed as a cheeky duet and not given its customary cabaret mauling by those we shall not name and shame. (We’re not talking Dick and Harry, though.)
Shaw gets the best from both these beauties and accompanies them with lively chords and twinkling fills. They give their all but the whole feel of the show is relaxed with no hint of ‘admire our great skills’ or showboating. A particle of ‘Wuthering Heights’ introduces a version of ‘Rocket Man’, unison vocal edging into organic harmony and layering. Splendid to hear. Shaw keeps a straight face as he mentions that the next selection is by Carole King, who was ‘a champion runner’ in high school, hence he claims full establishment of the soiree’s Olympic theme. We laugh, he feigns disgust at us. It’s not ‘It’s Too Late’ ( given its ultimate soaring outing on the ‘Isleys Live’ album, soul fans) but ‘Natural Woman’ taken by Johnson in quasi-gospel style, spraying spirit and warmth through the room. Shaw then decides to incorporate the audience’s singing into ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’. After two bars, he has a re-think. OK, Georgia is better than us!
Attempting ‘River Deep’ with only one piano might seem foolhardy, but tonight he powers Janine’s chocolate voice through a fine and agile dynamic-studded reading of the song and keeps this side of tuneful. At which point Ian turns somehow into the late Eddie Kendricks (Temptations) for ‘You Are Everything’ and then ‘That Old Devil Moon’ is played as a duet at a purposeful tread.
It’s getting warm and by ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ Shaw gripes about ‘sweating like a blind scouser in Dixons’. Puzzling for the Yanks in the room, but not the locals.
All three singers feature on the stirring ‘Heaven Help Us All’, harmonies held tighter than Ronald McDonald’s grip on the scoff franchise down at the Games. And this was nutritious, quality fare, unlike his…
If ever a musical evening was sophisticated but accessible, this was it. Strange that Ian Shaw has Dudley Moore’s fingers and Peter Cook’s scathing commentary, ain’t it ? Well done all