Tina May sings Piaf

On Saturday 19th of October 2013 jazz singer Tina May brought her Parisian set to Leighton Buzzard Library theatre. Ooh la la!

She brought also Karen Street, accordéoniste; Julie Wilkington on double bass; and long-standing collaborator, composer and jazz pianist Nikki Iles. Formidable!

Nothing says ‘French music’, to me anyway, like an accordion. Karen Street’s playing ran through the set like raspberry ripple runs through ice cream: sharp, fresh, essential.

The work done by Julie Walkington on her bull fiddle was prodigious. I haven’t heard a bass slapped like that since the last time I saw ‘Some Like It Hot’. Not only did she keep them all together with driving and imaginative bass lines, she also made intriguing melodies during the solos she took.

Nikki Iles led the way, filled in the interstices and used her breadth of talent on the piano to add delicate colour and vibrancy to every song.

The life and soul of the evening was Tina May. This is by no means the only material she sings. But she made it clear that she has been a Piaf fan since forever – (“I’ve become a bit of a Piaf anorak”) – and it showed. She’s a fluent French speaker who studied in Paris. Every song she sang was beautifully packaged and delivered with love. She has a great range, very clear at the top, very warm at the bottom. Occasionally it comes with a wicked twinkle, sanctioned by Piaf (“I can be ‘appy. But not for long.”) and snippets of Piafery, some of which I share with you below.

We heard, ‘Pigalle’ and ‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ enunciated so clearly that my rusty French could keep up: merveilleuse! In among the songs we learned that La Môme Piaf, the little sparrow, has now been gone 50 years, was a busker in Paris in the Thirties before finding fame, and an eye opener when she toured the United States (where people thought French singers were all like the urbane Maurice Chevalier and the gyrating Josephine Baker). Next we heard ‘J’Attendrai’ the epitome of Piaf’s, preferred, tragic mode. Most of what she sang was written for her. Between the wars, in the Twenties and on into the Thirties, every family would have lost someone to war, usually a young man, maybe more than one. Piaf’s songs of loss had a universal appeal.

Next we heard the jauntier ‘L’Accordéoniste’, (never trust an accordion player …). Next a song beloved of crooners for as long as I can remember ‘The Falling Leaves’, originally composed in 1945, in French, as ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ with music by Joseph Kosma and lyrics Jacques Prévert, revamped later by Johnny Mercer. We enjoyed a medley of both versions. Next we heard the bitter sweet ‘La Vie en Rose’ taken slowly and given full measure: lovely. The first set was concluded with ‘Milord’ – something Sally Bowles could well have sung in The Lady Windermere club in Berlin: ‘divinely decadent, darling’.

The second set began ‘L’Hymne a l’Amour’ (lyrics by Piaf, music by Marguerite Monnot). This also exists as ‘If You Love Me’. Once again we enjoyed French and English versions commingled. Next came ‘Que Reste’T’il de Nos Amours?’ by Charles Trenet, subsequently adopted by jazz players world wide. Next ‘Si Tu Partais’, also by Trenet.

Piaf was a troubadour of griefs – she had many in her life; an unwanted child, love affairs, marriages, car crashes, addictions. Each song she sang was a little story. Few of them happy. I had wondered if a whole evening of Piaf might be a little depressing – but not a bit of it! The set continued with a happy-sad song about ‘les jolies putes’ of Hamburg fleecing the sailors who came ashore with two months’ pay and two days’ leave: ‘C’Est Hambourg’.

We moved a little away from Piaf next with Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ (which by now I absolutely did), followed by a mixed version of Piaf’s ‘Mon Homme’ and Billie Holiday’s ‘My Man’. Those two really weren’t lucky in love, were they? I wonder if they ever compared notes? We needed something less dour after that, and we got ‘La Goualante de Pauvre Jean’, which skips along in a most Parisian manner.

But, you may say, isn’t there something seminal missing from this concert? Indeed, and we were given it as an encore: the incomparable ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. And a verse in English too.

C’est tout. Bravo!

Do check out Tina’s website here: http://www.tinamay.com/. In addition she has a Wikipedia entry and is on Facebook.

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