REVIEW: Tina May at the 606 Club

Tina May with Steve Brown
Photo: Peter Jones
Tina May
(606 Club, 14 October 2018. Review and picture by Peter Jones)

“Everything is about Mark tonight,” explained Tina May at the start of this gig. She was referring, of course, to the late Mark Murphy, who has been her guiding light in jazz singing for many years. And she didn’t just mean the repertoire for the evening, although there was indeed a connection to the great man in every song. To name-check Murphy is to declare an attitude to jazz singing that distinguishes it from lesser forms of singing, and for Ms May that means doing a great deal more than merely bookending the band’s solos.

She began with a song from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On The Town, Lucky To Be Me, which Murphy recorded in New York shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In the musical, this tune is usually performed in a rather brash, over-the-top manner, as you might expect from an American sailor on 24-hour shore leave. But in May’s hands it became very relaxed indeed, almost languid, a hip, mid-tempo swinger that beautifully reflected the song’s lyrical content, a celebration of new love. Out Of This World followed (from Murphy’s Rah album), arranged in Afro-Cuban style by the Munich-based pianist Andy Lutter.

In fact, Lutter had been part of the original plan for this gig: the idea was for them to perform their recent album Café Paranoia. It turned out he had prior commitments; thankfully, her long-time friend and accompanist Nikki Iles was available, even though some of Lutter’s charts weren’t.

After a classy rendition of Murphy’s signature tune, Stolen Moments, they arrived at a song called Dance Slowly.

Murphy himself never recorded or performed this tune. But for years he used to send snatches of poetry to Andy Lutter, many of them being what he called his ‘jazz haikus’ – not in the strict 17-syllable Japanese verse form, but much looser, while preserving the spirit of the haiku: odd thoughts and meditations, and usually quite short. Whenever he had time, Lutter would write music for them, with the object of eventually recording them with Murphy. But the singer became ill, and it never happened. Last year, Lutter and May released their own version of Mark Murphy’s jazz haikus on Café Paranoia. Not only was it one of the best albums of the year, it also sounded fiendishly difficult from a singer’s point of view. I confess one of my reasons for attending this gig was to see how it was even possible to render such challenging material live.

There was no need to worry: May, Iles, bassist Nick Pugh and drummer Steve Brown had it all under their fingers. After the delicate Dance Slowly came the haunting one-minute ballad Tundraness. What on earth is it about? It didn’t matter. Before singing the Café Paranoia title track, written as a sort of Weimar nightclub tune, May told the audience that Humphrey Lyttelton had once handed her a clarinet and told her to play it because they only had three and they needed four. She then produced said instrument and played it on this tune, quite well. It was that kind of gig.

May’s personal warmth and humour are an essential part of her appeal as a performer. She is also a fearless improviser, and does it all without apparent effort; she has a huge vocal range, sings across the bar-lines, misses words out, adds extra ones, and there are lots of slurs and subtle melodic variations, giving the impression of complete spontaneity.

Perhaps the best thing of the night was a smouldering I’m Through With Love, although a final Mark Murphy haiku – the sweet, mournful Less And Less – ran it a close second.

Peter Jones’s This is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy is published by Equinox.

LINK: Review of Café Paranoia CD  

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