by Ian Mann
April 26, 2020
A classy and intimate set featuring a well balanced trio who obviously enjoy an excellent rapport and who all sing and play superbly throughout.
Ian Shaw – Iain Ballamy – Jamie Safir
(Silent Wish Records SWRCD1)
Ian Shaw – vocals, Iain Ballamy – tenor saxophone, Jamie Safir - piano
“What’s New” brings together two old friends, stalwarts of the British jazz scene, and one highly talented newcomer.
Singer Ian Shaw and saxophonist Iain Ballamy need little introduction. Shaw is a frequent award winner, a hugely popular draw on the live music circuit and an all round entertainer who has collaborated with the likes of Quincy Jones, Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau.
Meanwhile Ballamy was a founder member of Loose Tubes and later became part of the Anglo-Norwegian improvising group Food, originally a quartet but now a duo featuring Ballamy and drummer Thomas Stronen. In an eclectic career Ballamy has collaborated with a diverse and highly impressive array of musicians, among them Hermeto Pascoal, Gil Evans, Bill Bruford, Django Bates, Joanna McGregor, Carla Bley, the bands Quercus and Farmer’s Market and many more. He has also led his own groups and issued a series of impressive recordings under his own name.
Pianist Jamie Safir is considerably younger than his two colleagues, and consequently less well known. Nevertheless he is a highly talented musician and also an accomplished songwriter. He is particularly adept at accompanying vocalists and has previously worked with Shaw, Liane Carroll, Claire Martin, Clare Teal, Alice Zawadzki, Natalie Williams, Joe Stilgoe and Judi Jackson. With vocalist Ben Cox, another Shaw protégé, he co-wrote most of the original material on the vocalist’s 2015 début album “This Waiting Game”, credited to the Ben Cox Band. He is also half of the duo Smith & Safir with vocalist Emma Smith. The pair are due to release their début album later in 2020. As a session musician Safir has also enjoyed a long and lucrative engagement as part of the band of pop singer Will Young. He has also worked with Olly Murs and with Brand New Heavies.
For Shaw and Ballamy this album represents something of a re-union. The pair appeared on Shaw’s 1998 album “In a New York Minute”, a recording that teamed them with the American musicians David Williams (bass) and the late, great Cedar Walton on piano.
The spirit of the late Ronnie Scott also hovers over this recording. It was Scott who first encouraged Shaw some thirty years ago and steered him in the direction of tunes drawn from the ‘Great American Songbook’.
“To be able to sing these songs with one of Ronnie’s favourite horn players, Iain Ballamy, was pure joy”, enthuses Shaw, who also praises Safir as “the in-demand pianist of our day”.
The album’s back cover shows the trio seemingly pictured on the roof of Ronnie Scott’s, but the album was actually recorded over the course of three days in April 2019 at Cooper Hall in Frome, Somerset, the town where Ballamy now lives. The programme consists entirely of classic material by such composers as Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach, Richard Rogers and Michel Legrand. All of the songs are collectively arranged by the members of the trio, the exception being the instrumental version of Ellington’s “Come Sunday”, jointly arranged by Ballamy and Safir.
The trio commence with the title track, written by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. It’s a relaxed, intimate performance featuring Shaw’s elegant vocal, with its conversational cadences, augmented by Ballamy’s warm, breathy tenor sax and Safir’s unobtrusive, seemingly effortless piano accompaniment. But of course it’s the piano that is at the heart of all these arrangements and Safir gets his chance as a soloist with a sparkling passage of unaccompanied piano.
The first of two Burt Bacharach / Hal David songs is “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)”. The title track may have set the essential template for the album but there are still new things to enjoy here, such as Shaw’s adventurous phrasing, skilfully shadowed by Ballamy’s sax. The latter then adopts a more sharply defined tenor sound for a wonderfully fluent solo. Safir, a sympathetic and intuitive accompanist, again provides the necessary structure, briefly breaking cover for a concise and pithy solo.
The instrumentalists introduce the Duke Ellington / Irving Gordon song “Prelude To A Kiss” with a lengthy duo passage featuring Ballamy’s relaxed, but consistently inventive, tenor musings and Safir’s always sensitive accompaniment. Shaw’s vocal again combines conversational warmth with deep emotion, these qualities allied to an adventurous approach to phrasing and an immense technical expertise.
Next up is a lively version “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”, written by Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn. The arrangement allows both instrumentalists plenty of room to stretch out and impress, their solos bookended by Shaw’s playful interpretation of the lyrics.
The trio take a more overtly sentimental approach to the Michel Legrand tune “Once Upon A Summertime”. There’s real feeling of nostalgia and a genuine sense of place in Shaw’s reading of the Paris based lyric, the mood enhanced by Ballamy’s succinct soloing and Safir’s empathic accompaniment.
Ballamy’s specialises on tenor sax throughout the album, his playing evoking comparisons with the great Stan Getz. It’s a comparison that is encouraged by the inclusion of the Antonio Carlos Jobim song “If You Never Come To Me”, with its English lyric by Ray Gilbert. Ballamy and Safir introduce the piece with an extended instrumental passage, and both impress with later solos, particularly the pianist. Shaw stretches his vocal lines in adventurous fashion, whilst still staying true to the feelings of yearning and melancholy expressed in the lyrics.
The trio are at their most vivacious on a playful take of the first of two Richard Rogers songs, this one with words by Lorenz Hart. Shaw brings out the tongue in cheek humour of Hart’s witty and inventive lyrics and his mood is matched by the lively instrumental contributions of Ballamy and Safir.
By way of contrast “Some Other Time” (Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green) brings a genuine poignancy, with Shaw’s emotive delivery complemented by Ballamy’s breathy tenor soloing and Safir’s responsive piano accompaniment.
The trio again take a playful approach to their second Richard Rogers song, this one with words by Oscar Hammerstein II. There’s a real joyousness about Shaw’s delivery of the lyrics, and that warmth is reflected in the solos of Ballamy and Safir.
Shaw originally recorded the Bacharach / David song “Alfie” on his “In a New York Minute” album. He reprises it here, once again in the company of Ballamy, and with Safir displaying an impressive maturity in the Cedar Walton role. This new version is genuinely impressive with a commanding vocal performance by Shaw complemented by the instrumental contributions of his bandmates.
Ballamy and Safir have the floor to themselves for their superb duo arrangement of “Come Sunday”, which features the saxophonist at his most eloquent and fluent. Safir is a terrific foil, bringing a subtle blues tinge to his masterful accompaniment and playing with great intelligence and invention throughout.
The album concludes with the Jimmy Van Heusen / Sammy Cahn song “I’ll Only Miss Him When I Think Of Him”. Initially Ballamy and Safir pick up where they left off with an extended instrumental introduction, featuring Ballamy’s tenor playing at its most tender and evocative. When it eventually arrives Shaw’s vocal picks up on the mood and he sings with genuine emotion and great technical expertise, it’s a brief, but hugely impressive vocal performance.
“What’s New” has attracted a high degree of critical acclaim, and understandably so. It’s a classy and intimate set featuring a well balanced trio who obviously enjoy an excellent rapport and who all sing and play superbly throughout. It’s not just a singer’s album, Ballamy and Safir are very much equal partners in a genuinely democratic trio.
However for all its virtues “What’s New” isn’t an album that I can see myself playing on a regular basis, mainly because of the sheer familiarity of the material. Do we really need another version of “Alfie”, no matter how immaculately it’s performed? That said I’d be more than happy to see this highly accomplished trio in live performance, very much Shaw’s natural habitat. Despite my personal reservations this is an album that is likely to be widely enjoyed by very many listeners.