CD review

Mary Stallings – Songs Were Made To Sing

Mary Stallings – Songs Were Made To Sing
(Smoke Sessions SSR-1903. CD review by Peter Vacher)

Back in 1970, San Francisco-born vocalist Mary Stallings toured Britain with the Count Basie orchestra and impressed everyone, including me. She was mid-way through a three-year association with the band and went on to appear with Dizzy Gillespie and many other jazz luminaries. She then took time out to raise her family, coming back  to full-time performance in the 1980s. Here she is now, approaching her 80th birthday, with a stellar supporting team, led by pianist David Hazeltine, recorded just days after an appearance at Dizzy’s Coca Cola in New York, one of many of her prestigious recent engagements across the US.

The first thing to say is that Hazeltine’s arrangements suit her, the songs she’s chosen work well and there needs to be no concession to age. Yes, the voice is that of a mature adult but it’s firm and well-centered, with the kind of jazz feel that comes from working with the best of the best. And inherent  talent, of course.

She opens with Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments, safely navigating its twists and turns with Peggy Stern’s caustic lyrics, the arrangement recalling Nelson’s original version. Lover Man, surprisingly, is more upbeat, momentarily recalling Billie Holiday’s lightness of touch, although Stallings’ slightly astringent sound is nearer to that of Carmen McRae in its timbre. Hazeltine solos at length before Stallings re-enters, cleverly varying the melodic line. Blue Monk, with Abbey Lincoln’s words, is laid back and, yes, bluesy, saxophonist Vincent Herring setting the scene in soulful fashion, Stallings again taking liberties with the theme. What we might call the McRae effect is best heard on Ill Wind, taken very slow, Stallings fervent, Eddie Henderson’s extended muted trumpet passages a musical positive, the drumming quite spare. Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird has a light Latin rhythm, the chart neat and to the point, as Herring slides in, sinuous and quite shrill. As sometimes happens, the slower tempos perhaps suit her best, as on When I Close My Eyes, where she’s relaxed and happy to leave spaces for others to fill.

What with Prelude To A Kiss, taken fast, the imperious ‘Round Midnight and Horace Silver’s Soul Mates, it’s easy to discern Stallings’ predilection for the wider currency of pre and post-bop jazz. What with her early days singing gospel and formative period headlining in San Francisco’s Fillmore District aka the ‘Harlem of the West’, Stallings has much to offer and the necessary vocal gravitas to make this a very classy release indeed. © Peter Vacher/2.9.2019

Mary Stallings [voc]; Eddie Henderson [t]; Vincent Herring [as, ts]; David Hazeltine [p, arr]; David ‘Happy’ Williams [b]; Joe Farnsworth [d]; Daniel Sadownick [perc. on two tracks]. Recorded 6 December 2018.

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