Were Tina May and Nikki Iles sisters in a previous life, as Tina suggests, if perhaps not entirely seriously?
May, one of the UK’s pre-eminent jazz singers, and much-in-demand pianist and composer Iles are currently celebrating their 20th year of working together and celebrate by embarking on a Scottish tour next week.
“People think we look a bit like sisters – it’s probably the cheeky grin,” May tells me, speaking from her home in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, when I ask her about the enduring success of the duo. “We feel safe with each other,” she continues. “We just seem to be on the same wavelength. You know how sometimes you just meet someone and it’s so effortless? It’s quite funny: sometimes we’ll finish each other’s musical phrases.”
A bit like an old married couple then? “Oh God, I can imagine us when we’re 80, helping each other on and off the stage...” She laughs at the image, although hirpling is not a term one would readily associate with May’s superbly fluid and versatile jazz voice.
If their musical relationship is an intensely close one, their repertoire is divertingly eclectic, liable to range from straight-ahead swingers, Great American Songbook and French chanson to blues, bossa and numbers by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. The duo’s eight-gig tour kicks off at Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp on Thursday, then they play Birnam Arts Centre on 13 September, the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on the 14th and on across Scotland, to finish at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, on 19 September.
May, meanwhile, maintains a pretty frenetic schedule of her own. When we speak she had newly returned from performing in France, via the Burton Bradstock Festival in Dorset. Later that day, she was flying back to France to appear at the St Quentin festival in Picardy. France has played a big role in her jazz development – she cut her teeth as a jazz singer while studying French in Paris and, a fluent French speaker, she retains a regular French band led by pianist Patrick Villanueva. She also, earlier in the summer, released a critically well-received album, Home Is Where the Heart Is (33 Jazz) with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxophonist Tony Coe.
Other obligations fulfilled, she’s looking forward to the Scottish tour: her father, apparently no mean amateur stride piano-player, was originally from Glasgow, although May was born in Gloucester – “but I still have the odd auntie in Cambuslang.”
There’s a typically eclectic mix, and not a little Scottish involvement, on last year’s album My Kinda Love, on the ever-productive, Pitlochry-based Hep Jazz label. Supported by a dynamic band led by London-based American saxophonist Frank Griffith, May sounds equally at home in something as sassily swinging as You Came a Long Way from St Louis as in the old Edith Piaf number Si Tu Partais, one of a sizeable repertoire of chanson she nurtures. It also includes a couple of numbers by the London-based Greenock-born composer and arranger Duncan Lamont, and there’s a further French connection in the Erik Satie piano tune carrying the wonderfully languid Lazy Afternoon, with its sultry shimmer from the Bowfiddle String Quartet.
Listen to Griffith’s sinuous clarinet weaving through their take on S’Posin’ and you’re listening to a seminal influence in May’s vocal style. She studied clarinet classically when she was a child and played it, along with bass clarinet, in Gloucester Young People’s Orchestra. The instrument still informs her singing “hugely”, she says. “It’s funny because when I’m in France especially, people cotton on to the clarinet thing and say, ‘Ah, you scat like a clarinet.’
I feel a great affinity with it. It’s a reed instrument, and the voice is really a reed instrument, isn’t it?
“When I was working with Humph [Lyttelton] he got me playing again. We used to do this thing called Mezz, after the clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow, and Humph would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve written this in honour of Mezz Mezzrow but it needs four clarinets,’ and he’d just hand me a clarinet, and I’d pretend not to know which hand went where. Then I’d get the first solo – great fun.”
The forthcoming Scottish tour with Iles is unlikely to see any impromptu clarinet capers, but what can audiences expect? “Oh,” she responds, “music to feel good to, classics revisited and maybe the odd surprise, including the odd chanson – in a jazz way, of course.”