Mary Stallings belongs to that lost generation of jazz singers whose careers imploded when the rock/folk/pop explosion of the mid-1960s sucked all of the oxygen out of jazz. From the early 1970s onward, Ms. Stallings generally confined her activities to the San Francisco Bay area so that she could raise her daughter. She returned to full-time singing at the end of the 1980s and finally came to the attention of the national jazz audience with the 1994 release of the aptly titled I Waited for You on Concord Jazz. Despite her three superb albums for the label, Concord Jazz foolishly allowed Ms. Stallings’s contract to lapse, and, for a while, it seemed that she would once again disappear into regional obscurity. Fortunately, real talent always finds a way to rise to the surface. Five years after her last album, Ms. Stallings has returned with a new CD on the MAXJAZZ label.
Beautifully recorded, Live at the Village Vanguard captures Mary Stallings in full flight. Her full-bodied, textured alto recalls Carmen McRae while her phrasing and intonation have clearly been influenced by Dinah Washington. Although she does have some of Ms. Washington’s bracing intensity, Ms. Stallings’s phrasing is more relaxed and agile. As befits a singer who spent four years (1969-1972) as the featured vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra, Ms. Stallings swings hard. “I Love Being Here With You” and “Lullaby of the Leaves” are textbook examples of how a singer can push a rhythm section rather than the other way around. Ms. Stallings also displays an impressive command of dynamics. Her ballads, usually performed sotto voce, have a brooding, introspective quality. The restraint of her ballad singing is such that when she does unleash the full power of her voice the effect can be startling. Although she continually stretches and bends the tunes, Ms. Stallings respects the basic melodic structure of her material.
Mary Stallings sustains an enviable level of quality throughout this live CD although some of the material does prove resistant to her talents. It is probably difficult for a singer to find new things to do with “Street of Dreams” or “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Still, Ms. Stallings does manage to shake the dust off of “Gypsy in My Soul,” “Everything I Love,” and especially “The Thrill is Gone.” While there are no obscurities in her repertoire, there are some less frequently encountered tunes like Cole Porter’s “You’re Sensational,” Henry Mancini’s “Slow Hot Wind” and Curtis Lewis’s “All Night Long.” The arrangements are reasonably straightforward and the instrumentalists are uniformly good. Both pianist Eric Reed and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake take good advantage of their numerous opportunities to solo.
Live at the Village Vanguard marks the welcome return of Mary Stallings to the national jazz stage. Let’s hope that this time she’ll stay around for a good long while.