Back in May, 2019, I had a brief moment of uncertainty when I received an email from RI-based musician Ben Shaw. I knew Shaw as a sax player, but he was sharing his latest single at the time, “Sailboats,” his first release as a “singer-songwriter.” With a click of the mouse, I heard a well-crafted tale in the Americana/folk tradition worthy of repeated listens.
Upon careful review, I found that Shaw was indeed branching out into singer-songwriter acoustic guitar-based music, after building his reputation as a jazz artist. A tad surprising in the genre-regimented music world, but not unprecedented.
Of course, there’s no rule – many popular artists explore diverse musical styles all the time. In Shaw’s case, he’s not only a jazz musician and singer-songwriter, but he also composes classical music. “I try to keep busy,” he joked in a recent interview.
Fast forward to April, 2022. Shaw is finally releasing his long-awaited album Seven Songs. On Thursday, April 7, he’s holding an album release show at The Parlour in Providence. Joining him on stage will be his band featured on the album as well as opening sets from local favorites John Faraone and Allison Rose.
How did he get to this point?
“I started learning saxophone when I was a kid,” Shaw explained, “because I needed to play an instrument in school and I was really drawn to the saxophone. That was my way into music, I didn’t play guitar at the time. I found jazz and developed a lifelong love and appreciation for jazz.”
Shaw composed jazz music in high school and entered the music program at the University of Rhode Island. But he always had wide-ranging musical interests.
“A few years ago I needed a new musical project,” explained Shaw. “I didn’t want to be limited to jazz, I wanted to speak in all these different ways.”
“I learned to do that by picking up a guitar and teaching myself, learning the chords and everything, and I plucked out a few songs. That’s how I came up with ‘Between Leather and a Headlight,’ and from there it was just writing songs and trying to learn.” That song became a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Competition.
Although Shaw is presently focused on the singer-songwriter stage of his career, he’s not giving up on other genres. “I’ll always continue to do some form of classical and jazz music. Jazz has brought me everything in music, the process of learning and going over songs, listening to them, and analyzing them,” he explained. But in terms of the practical nature of a career in music, I’ve always sort of seen myself as a singer-songwriter playing original music.”
Shaw continued, “When I was a kid … one of the things I said I wanted to be was a rock and roll scientist. What I meant by that was experimenting with rock and roll in some weird way I guess. The designation singer-songwriter is so open it doesn’t really mean anything other than that you are a person who sings and writes songs.”
In many ways, Shaw is a work in progress, still evolving as a musician.
“Being seen as a jazz musician, there is something about that that is so intoxicating to me, something that I want so desperately because is jazz is America’s greatest cultural export. To be a jazz musician means you’ve conquered such a terrifyingly difficult path. I think I’m interested in so many different things … I’m just going to be me, I’m just going to be whoever that turns out to be and be OK with that,” said Shaw.
He’s looking forward to The Parlour show on April 7.
“This is a collection of songs that I’ve been working on over the past few years, I’m just happy to get it out there and play with the guys in the band, it should be a great night!”