A Ghost in Every Bar: The Lyrics of Fran Landesman
When Fran Landesman died last year there was a real outpouring of not just understandable sorrow at the loss of an influential writer and convivial human being, but also an instant recognition of the artistry and huge effect her meaningful, slightly cynical, but very real, songs had on people. Above all the reaction was a reflection of what the songs meant to singers on the jazz scene and London’s closely converging literary circles, particularly among the beat writers and their modern day counterparts.
While ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most’ and ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, written with Tommy Wolf, are her widely acknowledged major achievements, proof should it be needed that there was so much more beyond these non pareils is provided by this exemplary album. Landesman liked Ian Shaw’s version of ‘Spring’: “Who’s playing my song?" Shaw recalls her saying, as she discovered him sight reading from sheet music he had found in her house in Islington where he had been rehearsing with her son Miles.
So Shaw is clearly the right person to bring something to the fireside, and perform the songs both Fran wrote with Wolf in the 1950s, and much more recently with Simon Wallace, who fittingly plays piano on all the tracks apart from the three Shaw accompanies himself on. I’m quite partial to hearing Shaw accompanying himself, something I only properly realised when Shaw played a duo gig with Gwyneth Herbert at the Pizza Express Jazz Club earlier this year. But Wallace is ideal throughout.
A Ghost in Every Bar, what an evocative title for the album, features some Landesman/Wallace songs previously unheard comprising the bittersweet but lonesome ‘Stranger’ ("waiting for a meeting with that special person"), ‘Noir’, and the witty ‘Killing Time’, OK not the most instantly memorable of songs, but this album is clearly destined for a long term relationship, one I know I’ll be picking off the shelf and listening to time and again with great pleasure. Why so? It’s both the quality of the lyrics and the performance, Shaw never oversells the songs but draws out their nuances so you feel there is a roomful of interior and exterior conversations at play. ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, which Landesman wrote with Bob Dorough, and ‘Spring’ are the tracks I have gravitated towards most so far, but this may well change with repeated plays.
It’s lazy journalism to say that this is such-and-such’s best album with a broad stroke of the pen and and no further justification. But for me it is Shaw’s greatest achievement, and I’ll explain it by saying that it’s more so than even his best work A World Still Turning recorded in New York, and the Joni Mitchell songbook Drawn To All Things. It’s so good because Ian creates more of a personal dream world of the imagination here than either of these considerable highlights quite achieve. It’s a process of transforming the simple notes or words lifted from the pulpiest of pages into something that makes you experience the moment you’re hearing it, with that much more significance. There’s no pretending on this most poetic of albums, and an uncanny empathy that’s quite remarkable.
A Ghost in Every Bar: The Lyrics of Fran Landesman is available now