At an early age, specially in high school when she sang with Louis Jordan, Stallings built quite a resume as a singer with some of the best-known names in jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Joe Williams.
But then she disappeared in the 1970’s. To raise a family in San Francisco. To work as a clothing designer. To spend time in her garden. After too long of an absence, Dizzy Gillespie encouraged Stallings to perform again, noting that she didn’t know how good she is. Which must have been true.
But it’s not true any longer, because the press and the public have been raving about Stallings’ singing and rightfully so ever since she re-emerged from obscurity with a tremendous return album recorded live at the Village Vanguard. To be honest with you, whenever I want to listen to music for pure enjoyment, without the need writing a review, Stallings’ Village Vanguard album is one that I always go back to. The mature timbre of her voice is comparable perhaps to Nancy Wilson, Etta Jones or Dinah Washington. But what makes Stallings’ singing so enjoyable is that her voice is an instrument that draws upon her emotions, and she wraps her entire lifetime of experiences into each of her songs. As a result, Mary Stallings is one of the most talented singers on today’s jazz scene and one of the most under-recorded. Stallings’ recent release, Remember Love, should help correct that deficiency, although I would hope that she’s working on her next album as I write this.
Working with Allen, Stallings has refashioned some of the songs to highlight some of the qualities of her voice the rich alto that hangs on just the right notes to convey a thought or her staggering of the beat to call attention to a song’s lyrics. Take Leonard Bernstein’s "Lucky To Be Me," which has been played more often recently, especially with the release of Bill Charlap’s tribute to Bernstein. Unlike Charlap’s version or Mark Murphy’s famous approach, Stallings takes a more contemplative approach, as if she were wistfully considering the fortunate turn of events in her life. But more importantly, backed just by Allen’s rubato piano, Stallings invests her entire being into the gorgeous first chorus. Her first three notes, "What a day," command the listener’s attention even before the song starts, and her elongation of the word "see" creates a high point from which the rest of the chorus descends into the easily loping rhythm. Stallings and Allen use the same approach to "Sweets" Edison’s "Centerpiece," abandoning the swing that most jazz musicians adopt and instead slowing it down into a pensive blues that eventually leads to successive choruses of Stallings’ wordless improvisation and scatting as Hall provides the walking bass lines.
In the sense of telling a story as if confidentially to the listener, full of dramatic high points and surprising denouements, Stallings is comparable to Nancy Wilson, and Stallings does it so well. The similarity is particularly noticeable on "Hello Yesterday," as Stallings starts with a spoken narrative before caressing the blue notes throughout a song that uses apostrophe as a means for distancing hurt. The first song on the album, the short version of "What A Difference A Day Makes," just as effectively showcases Stallings’ voice, as she sings most of it to the accompaniment of Hart on drums, Wess adding some tenor sax commentary similar to Houston Person’s with Etta Jones. Yet, all is not entirely heart-wrenching balladry. On "I Just Found Out About Love," Stallings takes command of the song with exuberance and mature pacing, giving Wess an opportunity to take his own chorus on it.
Mary Stallings now is at the top of her game, and Half Note Records has produced an album that’s worthy of her talent, bringing together exceptional musicians with arrangements that Geri Allen no doubt wrote especially with Stallings’ unique vocal qualities in mind.