The dynamism and warmth of British jazz singer Tina May, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 60, were lifelong virtues that made a difficult art feel natural, drew every listener into an intimate space that seemed to get her full attention, and allowed her to bring seductive freshness to lyrics she might have sung hundreds of times before.
Like many of the genre’s finest vocal artists, May understood and loved the company of jazz instrumentalists and studied their phrasing and timing closely – but she used these informal lessons in her own way, interpreting the lyrics in fluent English and French. She avoided the temptation to emulate iconic American models except in effortless vigilance to swing, and fashioned her own palette of bluesy inflections, beboppish rhythmic twists, wordless improvisation and inventive new lyrics for old songs. She was a skilled manipulator of classical materials.
As Observer reviewer Dave Gelly wrote of May’s My Kinda Love album in 2014, “She can sing a straight melody, like I’m Through with Love, and make it open like a flower”.
In the decades since her emergence as a theatre, cabaret and jazz performer in the late 1980s, May’s career has reflected her openness to many ways of making music. She was comfortable in big tough outfits, including the BBC Big Band and Stan Tracey orchestras, and shared airy gigs from tradition to mainstream with Humphrey Lyttelton’s bands.
She tiptoed through tricky chamber jazz spaces requiring listening skills as delicate as her vocals, as she did in some tightly tuned performances in 2004 in an offbeat lyrical trio with the great saxophonist British Tony Coe and Nikki Iles, the pianist, who was to become his regular playing partner and close friend. Iles was one of many world-class jazz pianists with whom May was inventively comfortable – a group including Tracey, Enrico Pieranunzi, Patrick Villanueva and Ray Bryant.
May was born in Gloucester, the younger daughter of Daphne (née Walton), a cosmetics company manager, and Harry May, a former professional footballer, then a manager in the engineering industry. Tina’s older sister, Vivienne, learned guitar and violin, while Tina played clarinet, until she switched to classical singing lessons at the age of 16.
Their parents were both amateur pianists (show tunes for Daphne, stride piano jazz for Harry), and Tina’s earliest influences as a child in the sleepy village of Frampton-on-Severn were the records of Fats Waller from his father.
She attended Stroud High School and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and pursued voice lessons and clarinet studies, but when her mother died suddenly aged 46, she followed her father’s wish. distraught to pursue a more orthodox path than a musical life. and learned French at University College Cardiff. The course lasted from May to a year in Paris, where she began to sing in jazz clubs with the musicians of the city.
In a Parisian café, she also met the budding impressionist and satirist Rory Bremner, with whom she formed a review duo that found its place on the sidelines of the Edinburgh festival. Back in Cardiff, May sang in Frevo, a Latin American band with folk/jazz guitarist Dylan Fowler, and in 1990 the band played at the Bath Festival alongside Brazilian player and songwriter Egberto Gismonti, who invited May to perform with her trio on the concert.
She divided her time between theater workshops and jazz gigs (as a founding member of the Back Door Theater Company she was a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe), and continued to sing with Fowler, but moving in London she began recording the first of many albums for Luton-based indie jazz 33 Jazz. Among the many fine releases for the label were the theme song Jazz Piquant – N’Oublie Toujours (1998), with Coe on saxes and clarinet, One Fine Day (1999), an album of flawless standard songs with Iles and reed virtuoso Alan Barnes, the improvised May/Coe/Iles collaboration More Than You Know (2004) and a crackling classical jazz encounter with Bryant for The Ray Bryant Songbook (2007).
Later, a standout May triumph was her heartfelt and skillful tribute to American singer Mark Murphy with Cafe Paranoia (2017). May has also recorded successfully for Scottish labels Linn Records and Hep.
Among wider collaborations, May’s career also included taking part in Duke Ellington’s powerful orchestral recital of sacred music at Durham Cathedral (Duke Ellington – The Durham Connection, 1998), and in 2000 she recorded the popular show Ella Fitzgerald Song Book Revisited for Spotlite Records. with fellow singers Barbara Jay and Lee Gibson and saxophonist Tommy Whittle.
She has also lectured and taught at Trinity College of Music, Leeds College of Music, Birmingham Conservatory, Royal Academy of Music, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and University of West London, and has regularly organized workshops and masterclasses. his own tours.
A witty and inventive creator of lyrics for famous jazz instrumentals, May has also written lyrics for pieces by Bryant, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, trumpeter Nat Adderley and saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Just before his diagnosis in late 2021, May and his partner, saxophonist and jazz historian Simon Spillett, were about to start work on a new venture putting his skills as a librettist to good use – putting 1950s compositions into words. /60 by saxophonist Tubby Hayes.
As she told pianist Terence Collie in an interview/performance podcast last summer, “I’m happy when I learn new things. And there’s an awful lot of music there.
May is survived by Simon; by his son, Ben, and daughter, Gemma, from his marriage to drummer Clark Tracey, which ended in divorce; and by his sister.