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Tina May

52nd Street (and other tales)

by Ian Mann

December 16, 2020


A warm and consistently engaging tribute to a still underrated talent as Tina May sings the songs of the late Scottish saxophonist, composer and songwriter Duncan Lamont. Classy and accomplished.

Tina May

“52nd Street (and other tales)”

33 Records 33JAZZ284)

Tina May – vocals

with the James Pearson Trio;
James Pearson -  piano, Sam Burgess – double bass, Chris Higginbottom – drums

Special Guests;
Mark Nightingale – trombone, Phil Hopkins – percussion, Karen Street – accordion

Vocalist Tina May’s latest album release is subtitled “Tina May sings the songs of Duncan Lamont” and the recording features thirteen songs written by the late Scottish saxophonist and composer, who died in July 2019.

In many respects the album is as much Lamont’s as it May’s, and the highly informative album booklet includes a wealth of detail relating to the man and his music. Lamont’s sons Ross and Duncan Jr., and daughter, Beth, were all fully involved in the project and doubtless provided some of the fascinating archive material that graces the album packaging.

Tina May is one of the UK’s most respected jazz vocalists and this current release represents her 25th album as a leader, many of them recorded for the 33 label, with whom she has enjoyed a long and fruitful association. I first remember hearing her sing at the 1989 Brecon Jazz Festival, when she performed as a member of guitarist Dylan Fowler’s group Frevo. “Never Let Me Go”, her 1992 début release for 33 Records remains a personal favourite, and I recall seeing her perform at the Buttermarket in Shrewsbury around this time. More recently she returned to Brecon Jazz Festival to perform a Brazilian themed set in the company of a one off octet in August 2016.

Sometime back in the 1990s I enjoyed a performance by saxophonist Duncan Lamont, which, as I recall, took place at the Imperial Hotel in Hereford. Lamont was the guest soloist,  playing alongside a locally based trio led by drummer John Gibbon and featuring pianist Phil Mead and bassist Erika Lyons. This event was part of one of several ‘regional tours’ organised by Gibbon that took in a number of venues in South Wales and the Welsh Borders, and which regularly visited Hereford. Most of the guest soloists relished coming out of London for a breath of fresh air and a whistle stop tour of the Borders. An illustrious list included saxophonists Lamont, Ray Warleigh, Danny Moss, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Mornington Lockett, trumpeter Dick Pearce and guitarists Phil Lee and Mike Britton, among others. Happy days, but sadly many of those musicians, Lamont among them, are no longer with us.

Inevitably most of these ‘local rhythm section plus visiting soloist’ gigs were standards based, and much as I enjoyed Lamont’s sensitive performance as a tenor sax soloist I was, at that time, completely unaware of his parallel career as a song writer and composer, or that he had rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in show business. Among those with whom Lamont worked were Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire,  Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Paul McCartney, Eartha Kitt, Blossom Dearie and Spike Milligan.

As an instrumental composer and arranger Lamont regularly wrote for jazz big bands as well as writing for television and cinema. In the early 1970s he composed the theme tune and provided the incidental music for the BBC children’s television series “The Adventures of Mr. Benn”, the character created by author, illustrator and animator David McKee.

 In 2011, the year of his 80th birthday, Lamont assembled a stellar ensemble to play his arrangements of the Mr. Benn repertoire. The original TV soundtracks had been performed by an octet including the late, great Kenny Wheeler (1930 – 2014) and it was therefore appropriate that Wheeler should appear as a guest soloist on the Benn Big Band project, playing flugelhorn exclusively.

Credited to the Duncan Lamont Big Band the resultant album, “As If By Magic…” wasn’t released until November 2016, when the enterprising independent label Jellymould Jazz presented it to the world. It proved to be a hugely successful and enjoyable release and my review of this recording can be read here;

Lamont’s writing for big band was praised by no less an authority than the great Gil Evans. As a songwriter his work was championed by such doyens of the profession as Johnny Mandel and Matt Dennis, the latter acting as something of a mentor to Lamont.

Duncan Lamont and Tina May first met at the 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea around the time that May first moved to the capital. She later recorded two of his songs for her 2014 album “My Kinda Love” and was also part of the Duncan Lamont Songbook Project, alongside fellow vocalists Esther Bennett, Sarah Moule and Daniela Clynes. May was part of Lamont’s last ever gig at the 606, which took place the day before his passing, and which had been intended as a celebration of his forthcoming 88th birthday.

The “My Kinda Love” recording, allied to May’s involvement with the Lamont Songbook project led to this new recording, an entire collection of original Lamont material. May is joined by the Ronnie Scott’s house rhythm section of pianist James Pearson, bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Chris Higginbottom, collectively billed here as the James Pearson Trio.

The core group is augmented by the talents of guest musicians Mark Nightingale (trombone), Phil Hopkins (percussion) and Karen Street (accordion). Both Nightingale and Hopkins worked extensively with Lamont and the trombonist regularly appeared with the Lamont Big Band at the Bull’s Head in Barnes.

The decision for May to record an album of Lamont’s songs was initially taken before the composer’s death and rehearsals first took place with Pearson in June 2019. The album was eventually recorded on 8th and 9th January 2020 at The Bunker, Welwyn Garden City, with Lester Salmins engineering. Mixing and mastering was later carried out at Session Corner by Nick Pugh.

Besides the wealth of fascinating archive material in the album booklet there are also detailed descriptions as to the inspirations behind the individual songs.

The album commences with “52nd Street”, Lamont’s homage to that famous New York thoroughfare and its numerous jazz clubs. Lamont first visited New York in 1958 as a member of the Vic Lewis band. Many years later on a return to the city he took a walk down 52nd Street with Johnny Mandel, who pointed out where all the famous jazz clubs had once been - “this used to be a hell of a street, until John Rockefeller pulled it all down and put up office blocks”. Lamont’s lyrics reference jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and many more and celebrate the birth of bebop, with May delivering an appropriate scat vocal episode. She also handles the complex, hipster style lyrics with aplomb, while the instrumental honours go to Nightingale with a fluent and astonishingly agile trombone solo. Meanwhile Higginbottom also features strongly, with Hopkins’ percussion adding a little Latin exotica to the mix.

We remain in New York for “The Algonquin Hotel”, Lamont’s homage to Dorothy Parker and the other writers, musicians, artists and socialites who would gather around the hotel’s famous Round Table during the 1920s and 30s. This time the lyrics name-check Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, the Gershwins and specifically the American playwright George S. Kaufman. Lamont’s is an imagined nostalgia, written after a visit to the Algonquin in 1995, with lyrics that find him fantasising about meeting all these great historical characters. The performance features the core quartet with May’s expressive vocals investing Lamont’s appropriately literary lyrics with a suitably yearning and wistful quality.

“The Apartment” also features a New York setting and was originally an instrumental that Lamont wrote as a ‘library’ piece. The lyric was added some forty years later, and again embraces an air of nostalgia, both for long lost romantic love and the city as it was, before those “office blocks” referenced on the opening track. The gently nostalgic melancholy of the lyric is matched by May’s vocals and the instrumental solos from Pearson on piano and Nightingale on mournfully expressive bucket muted trombone.

The song “Fred Astaire” also began life as an instrumental piece, initially written for a BBC broadcast. Lamont felt that the melody had a dance like quality about it and subsequently wrote a lyric in homage to a man who was a huge star in his day. Blossom Dearie recorded a version of the song, and her recording reached the ears of Astaire himself, who sent a letter of appreciation to Lamont, which is reproduced in the album booklet. Naturally the mood here is celebratory as well as nostalgic, with May’s playful delivery of the warmly witty lyrics complemented by Higginbottom’s deft brushwork, intended to musically replicate the nimble feet of Astaire. Pearson also impresses with a lightly skipping piano solo, while May also adds a breezy scat vocal episode.

“The Darker Side Of The Rainbow” is inspired by Lamont’s admiration for another Hollywood icon, in this instance Judy Garland. Lamont always loved the “emotional resonance” of Garland’s singing and this classic jazz ballad tells the story of Garland’s tragic life via a lyric that draws on images and metaphors from Garland’s films to tell her tale. It’s all done with skill and a genuine affection, and something that could have come across as crass and opportunistic is instead genuinely moving. May’s vocals again invest Lamont’s words with an appropriate gravitas and, indeed, emotional resonance. Musical quotes, such as from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, are stitched in with skill and don’t sound remotely clichéd.

Following his success with “Mr. Benn” Lamont went on to write music for other children’s TV shows such as “King Rollo”, “Spot The Dog” and “Towser”. Here “Spring Song” lightens the mood with a playful hymn of praise to that season, full of cheery, childlike imagery, but with a bitter, adult lyrical twist in the tale. May sings the song with appropriate glee, with the trio matching her mood musically, and with Higginbottom enjoying a series of playful drum breaks.

Lamont was a huge fan of the music of the Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim and was once approached by Tim Hauser of the vocal group Manhattan Transfer to provide lyrics for a Jobim tribute project that ultimately failed to come to fruition. Instead Lamont wrote his own Jobim tribute, the bossa flavoured “Hymn For Jobim”, written following the composer’s death in 1994. May’s own love of Brazilian music makes her the ideal person to sing this song, warmly delivering a lyric that makes references to the Brazilian imagery that occurs in Jobim’s own songs (Corcovado, Ipanema) etc. Lamont’s words also document the effect that Jobim’s work had on his own writing plus the outpouring of grief that occurred in Brazil following Jobim’s death. Musically the honours go to Pearson with an expansive and lyrical piano solo on the album’s lengthiest track.

The song “Your Waltz” was originally written as an instrumental for a 1970s BBC broadcast featuring Lamont’s Big Band. It was intended that Matt Dennis’ writing partner, Tom Adair would write a lyric for it, but Lamont was disappointed with the results. Many years later he decided to write his own lyric for it, and the song was the last one that he worked on prior to his death. As the listener might suspect the piece is indeed a jazz waltz, with the mellifluous Nightingale the featured soloist.

One of Lamont’s literary heroes was Lewis Carroll and “Back Through The Looking Glass” imagines the author visiting a sleazy jazz bar and drunkenly dispensing advice to the lovelorn. There’s a suitably woozy quality about the music, with lyrical allusions to Carroll’s work, plus a variety of illicit substances. Lamont’s score requests “dissonant stride piano”, which Pearson delivers with an obvious relish, the bravura of his playing matched by May’s gleefully wicked vocal.

Lamont actually began his musical career as a trumpeter, an instrument also played in his early days by the comedian Spike Milligan. Lamont was introduced to Milligan by the jazz pianist Alan Clare and the pair struck up an unlikely rapport. Milligan narrated Lamont’s “Sherlock Holmes Suite for Big Band” and also forwarded the composer a poem, which had been inspired by Milligan’s listening to “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Milligan’s untitled poem is written in the style of an “English Folk Song”, the title that Lamont eventually bestowed upon it. Milligan’s letter to Lamont, incorporating the poem, is reproduced as part of the album packaging. Lamont’s music is harmonically simple and modal and the piece is performed here as a duet by May and Pearson, who combine to bring a grace and spaciousness to the performance that is richly evocative and genuinely moving.

For the recording of the Mr Benn themed big band album “As If By Magic…” Lamont re-arranged the familiar “Mr Benn” theme in a Latin / Bossa style. This new version proved to be highly popular on gigs and Lamont later wrote a lyric to the tune, this acting as something of a love letter to Brazil. Following on neatly from the earlier Jobim tribute “Old Brazil” makes similar cultural references in its lyrics and a breezy group performance also includes May’s joyous wordless vocals and the exotic percolations of Hopkins’ percussion. There’s also a lithe piano solo from Pearson and a melodic excursion on double bass from Burgess, whose excellent playing I remember from pianist Tom Cawley’s Curios trio.

Alongside his love for Brazil Lamont was equally fond of France, and the city of Paris I particular. His song “Camille” tells the playful, but ultimately tragic, story of a dancer from the Folie Bergeres, with lyrics that also reference the artists Degas, Rubens, Monet and Toulouse Lautrec.  With May singing in a strongly exaggerated French accent it’s the piece that veers most closely to musical theatre. It should be noted at this point that May is actually totally adept at singing jazz in the French language, as evidenced by her 1998 album “Jazz Piquant – N’Oublie Jamais”.
The Gallic flavour of “Camille” is further enhanced by the fluent accordion playing of Karen Street, a highly versatile musician who is also an accomplished saxophonist. The use of accordion also reflects the fact that Lamont’s father and sister were also highly skilled accordionists, with Duncan also harbouring a fondness for the instrument.

The album concludes with a segue of two of Lamont’s blues based songs, “There Ain’t Nothing Like The Blues” and “I’ve Just Said Goodbye To The Blues”. These songs were chosen to reflect the old jazz adage “everything goes back to the Blues eventually”.
The first piece is in the great “torch song” tradition, with May brooding in the style of an updated Billie Holiday. The performance also includes a deeply resonant bass solo from Burgess.
“I’ve Just Said Goodbye To The Blues” crosses the blues with samba to produce something joyous and upbeat, an appropriate way to end an album that is ultimately a celebration of Lamont’s life and music. Introduced by Higginbottom at the drums the piece also includes a strong contribution from percussionist Hopkins and a rousing trombone solo from the excellent Nightingale. May sings with great élan and Pearson’s Latin-esque piano is at the heart of the arrangement.

“52nd Street (and other tales)” is an enjoyable and entertaining tribute to the life and music of the multi-talented Duncan Lamont. With Ross and Duncan Jr. helping to produce the album alongside Tina May it’s very much a family affair and the esteem in which Duncan Sr. was held by family, musical colleagues and the wider entertainment industry is obvious throughout.

Lamont’s songs embrace a variety of musical styles, but are united by memorable tunes and witty, literate and perceptive lyrics that frequently reference other art forms. Lamont never became cynical or world weary and even his most melancholy songs are rooted in a love of life and the arts.

May, always a classy and accomplished performer, sings these songs with skill and with an obvious love of the material. Pearson and the trio provide similarly classy accompaniment, always serving the song rather than calling attention to themselves. Even so they still impress with their solo contributions, as does trombonist Nightingale. Meanwhile Hopkins and Street add welcome splashes of additional colour, making telling contributions to the songs on which they appear.

All in all a warm and consistently engaging tribute to a still underrated talent.

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