by Ian Mann
August 09, 2021
A typically classy and sophisticated performance from May, in the company of a one off quintet. Her open minded and adventurous approach saw her bringing out the best in her colleagues.
Tina May Quintet, Kidderminster Jazz Club, Corn Exchange Room, Town Hall, Kidderminster, 05/08/2021
Tina May – vocals, John McDonald – piano, John McKinley – guitar, Matheus Prado – double bass, Dan Wilby – drums
The second event of Kidderminster Jazz Club’s 2021 season saw organiser Annette Gregory, herself a highly accomplished jazz singer, welcoming one of her vocal heroines, Tina May, to the Club. May had originally been scheduled to play at KJC in June 2020, an event that inevitably fell victim to the pandemic.
Tina May is one of the UK’s most respected jazz vocalists and has released twenty five albums as a leader during the course of a lengthy and distinguished singing career. Many of these have been released on the 33Jazz record label, with whom she has enjoyed a long and fruitful association. Her latest offering for the imprint is the excellent “52nd Street (and other tales)”, a collection of songs written by the late saxophonist and songwriter Duncan Lamont (1931-2019), that was released in 2020. Review here;
I first remember hearing May 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 and then at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester in the late 1990s. 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.
Introducing tonight’s performance Gregory recalled seeing that show in Brecon, the quality of May’s performance convincing Gregory that she should bring her fellow vocalist to perform in Kidderminster. The eventual fulfilment of that ambition may have come a year late, but a typically classy and sophisticated performance from May, in the company of a one off quintet, ensured that the wait was well worth it.
Tonight at Kidderminster May was accompanied by the members of Gregory’s own group, musicians who have appeared on her own EPs and videos and who essentially represent KJC’s ‘house band’. Pianist John McDonald is also Gregory’s musical director and is a highly experienced musician, as is guitarist John McKinley. Bassist Matheus Prado hails from Brazil and also spent time in Portugal before settling in Cardiff following his studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Gregory and Prado first performed together at the 2017 Brecon Jazz Festival, a supposedly ‘one off’ collaboration that has since become more permanent. Drummer Dan Wilby is the youngest member of the quintet, a recent graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire.
The Lamont material from May’s latest album was of necessity put to one side as this one off quintet concentrated on standards based material. However these were not always the obvious choices with May and the band taking an adventurous approach with regard to song selection.
May is a consummate performer and a skilled improviser, and her open minded and adventurous approach saw her bringing out the best in her colleagues, encouraging their solos and engaging them in a series of imaginative vocal and instrumental exchanges, these also emphasising the leader’s scat vocal abilities.
The opening “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon”, written by the American pianist and vocalist Diane Schuur, transported us from the West Midlands to New Orleans. Blending jazz with soul May’s sultry evocation of the Crescent City was enhanced by the blues inflected soloing of McKinley and McDonald. The performance also included a series of scat vocal and double bass exchanges between May and the consistently excellent Prado.
Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek”, from the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musical “Top Hat” represented more obvious standards fare, and also reflected May’s love of cinema. Her playful vocals were again complemented by the fluent solos of McDonald and McKinley, plus a series of scat vocal and brushed drum exchanges between May and Wilby.
We travelled back to Louisiana for “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”, with the quintet delivering a gently swinging performance with blues flavourings again finding their way into the solos of both McKinley and McDonald.
The guitarist favours a clean, orthodox, ‘classic’ jazz guitar sound, while McDonald, like Dave Jones the previous month, benefited enormously from the presence of the Town Hall’s wonderful grand piano. This was a song that demonstrated May’s prowess as a story teller, a quality enhanced by the fact that she trained as an actress as well as a singer. It was easy to believe that this most British of vocalists was actually experiencing the pain of exile from New Orleans.
Those story telling qualities came to the fore once more on Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch”, from the musical “Company”. The song was made famous by Elaine Stritch but May’s version was inspired by the recording by pianist / vocalist Blossom Dearie. Tonight the song was played in a gently swinging Latin-esque arrangement, with pianist McDonald the featured instrumental soloist.
May’s recordings include “Tina Sings Piaf” (33 Records, 2011), a collection of songs associated with the late French diva. Tonight’s repertoire included “Si Tous Partir”, (“If You Were To Go”) written for Piaf, but also recorded by another of May’s vocal heroines, Peggy Lee. In an arrangement that May described as being “a cross between a rumba and a tango” the vocalist delivered the lyric in both French and English, paying homage to both Piaf and Lee. During her student years May lived and studied in Paris and speaks, and sings, French fluently. Her bi-lingual vocalising here was augmented by the lyrical soloing of McDonald and McKinley, plus the melodic bass playing of Prado.
An arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” also included the singing of the lyric in both French and English, with instrumental solos from McDonald and Prado and a series of vocal/ drum exchanges between May and Wilby.
Each season at Kidderminster Jazz Club features a specific theme. In 2019/20 it was George Gershwin, in 2021 it is Charlie Parker, with each performer requested to include a couple of Parker tunes, usually one in each set. May closed her first set with a melding of the jazz standard “How High The Moon” with ‘Bird’s’ “Ornithology”. This which featured some bravura, Ella Fitzgerald inspired, scat vocalising as May traded slippery bebop inspired melody lines with McKinley and McDonald and also exchanged ideas with Wilby, before handing over completely to the young drummer with the phrase “all yours!”. Wilby’s subsequent drum feature brought the first half of the evening to an exciting conclusion.
Set two commenced with another Peggy Lee tribute, a version of “Hallelujah I Love Him So”, a song also famously recorded by Ray Charles. May approached the piece in playful fashion, personalising the lyrics, as the quintet provided swinging support with instrumental solos coming from McDonald, McKinley and Prado.
The Clifford Brown tune “Daahoud” proved to be an inspired choice. Retitled “Beloved” with the addition of a vocalese lyric by the American jazz vocalist Meredith D’Ambrosio this piece featured May’s bebop derived vocal gymnastics as she exchanged ideas with McDonald, McKinley and Wilby. I’ve spoken previously of May’s support and encouragement for her bandmates, and this was epitomised via this performance of a particularly tricky and complex piece. A definite set highlight.
After this display of her vocal ‘chops’ May returned to story telling mode for “I Keep Going Back To Joe’s”, Frank Sinatra’s sequel to “One More For The Road”. May’s version was inspired by a recording by Mark Murphy and she and the band generated an authentic after hours feel, one that also reminded me of Tom Waits’ “Nighthawks at the Diner”. Here May’s world weary vocal was augmented by instrumental solos from McDonald at the piano and McKinley on guitar.
It was Murphy that added lyrics to the American saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s tune “Stolen Moments”, a piece that first appeared on Nelson’s 1961 album “Blues and the Abstract Truth”. Murphy’s words were added in 1978 for his own album, “Stolen Moments”. Here May’s vocals were augmented by features for all four instrumentalists, with Wilby adding a series of brushed drum breaks to the solos of McDonald, McKinley and Prado.
A second Sinatra associated tune, “Come Fly With Me” was introduced by a combination of voice, double bass and cymbal ticks before expanding to incorporate solos from McDonald and McKinley and a further drum feature from Wilby.
The Charlie Parker themed piece for the second half was an arrangement of the Fats Waller song “Honeysuckle Rose”, a tune often played by Parker. The performance also incorporated Parker’s own “Scrapple from the Apple” and featured more bebop inspired vocal derring-do from May, alongside features for all the instrumentalists, with Prado’s virtuoso double bass solo a particular stand-out.
May’s love of Brazilian music found expression in a version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade”, aka “No More Blues”, introduced by a passage of scat vocalising, subsequently answered by Wilby’s drums. The lyrics were eventually delivered in English, with instrumental solos coming from McDonald and McKinley and with May later exchanging ideas with both Prado and Wilby.
The well deserved encore was a version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with instrumental features from McKinley, McDonald and Wilby.
Thus ended an excellent evening of music that was a cut above the average ‘guest vocalist plus house band’ provincial jazz club session. Much of this was down to Tina May herself, a technically gifted vocalist, a skilled interpreter of a lyric and a confident and engaging stage presence. A consummate professional May was also able to bring out the best in her band, all of whom performed admirably, with McDonald and McKinley delivering some inspired solos on piano and guitar respectively.
Prado was the only musician with whom May had worked previously, thanks to her role as a visiting tutor at her alma mater, the RWCMD. Thus Prado was effectively the glue that held it altogether, and he also linked up well with Wilby as half of a flexible and intelligent rhythm section. My only reservation was that I’d have liked Wilby to ‘let go’ a bit more during his numerous exchanges with May, where his approach was a little bit too diffident and respectful. Not that there was anything ‘wrong’ with his playing, but one just got the impression that sparks would have flown a bit more with a more experienced or less inhibited drummer.
The obvious delight that Annette Gregory felt in Tina May’s performance also transmitted itself to the audience, and for band and fans alike the chance to return to live music was much appreciated, despite the dreadful weather Tina had encountered on her way to the gig.
My thanks to Tina and Matheus for speaking with me and to Annette for putting on the event in the first place and for her sterling work running Kidderminster Jazz Club, a most welcome addition to the jazz scene in the Midlands.
Forthcoming events at Kidderminster Jazz Club are;
2nd Sept - Alan Barnes
7th Oct - Roger Beaujolais
11th November – Ian Shaw
2nd Dec - Emma Johnson
Details at https://www.kidderminsterjazzclub.co.uk
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