A Place for Jazz launched its fall concert season with a knock-out performance by trumpeter Tom Harrell last month, and it seemed that the series just wouldn’t be able top it.
But that assumption was proven oh-so-wrong when jazz vocalist Mary Stallings took the stage at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady’s Whisperdome just two weeks later.
I had missed her in concert last year when she took the microphone with Jimmy Cobb’s Coast to Coast Septet at the Tanglewood Jazz Weekend, but I wasn’t about to make that same mistake again.
Stallings is a jazz vocalist in the classic tradition, and at the age of 73, she honestly seems to be at the peak of her considerable musical powers.
“Love” was the obvious theme for the evening, as Stallings warmed up the room with the opening volley of “Close Enough for Love,” then swung confidently into “Everything I Love” (adding just a bit of scat singing to the mix) before downshifting into the ballad “Remember Love,” penned by her daughter, R&B singer Adriana Evans.
“Sweet music soft and mellow/Soothing and slow, strains of a mellow cello/When lights are low,” she sang during a playfully seductive treatment of the Benny Carter nugget. And except for the part about the cello, it seemed an apt description of Stallings’ sublime performance – but actually the cello seemed to be an apt metaphor for her warm, resonant vocal approach.
She didn’t do a lot of fancy tricks, but she imbued her repertoire with wisdom, a well of emotional depth and logic of the heart. She slowed the tempo way down for “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” buttressed by a beautiful bowed bass solo by Harvie S that enhanced the haunting mood. The ballad “Yesterdays” was at once wistful and bittersweet, with a very personal, lived-in quality beyond the reach of so many singers.
It wasn’t all about the ballads, however. Stallings delicately balanced her ballads with plenty of swing, straight-up bop and blues. Opening her second hour-long set with “That Old Devil Moon,” Harvie S and pianist David Udolf laid down a slinky, sinuous groove, and stellar drummer Steve Williams provided plenty of sizzle. But the band really got a chance to shine during an uptempo romp through Gershwin’s time-honored “I Got Rhythm.” Stallings praised drummer Williams – a 25-year veteran of Shirley Horn’s band – as “a singer’s dream as an accompanyist,” and she was clearly overjoyed at his inventive but in-the-pocket work behind the kit all throughout the evening.
Stallings offered a mini “dream” theme late in the performance with the back-to-back pairing of Cole Porter’s upbeat “Dream Dancing” and the hushed ballad “Stuck in a Dream,” as Udolf offering up melancholy piano notes that echoed like raindrops on a window pane.
But the clear highlight of the night was a breathtaking spin through Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ vocalese gem, “Centerpiece,” with Harvie S’s nimble bass lines as the sole accompanyment for Stallings’ sensational scat singing showcase.
In addition to Stallings’ two hour-long sets, the audience was treated to some intermission entertainment by Rob Aronstein and his young student band, the Central Park Jazz Mob.
Albert Brooks’ photographs at Albany Jazz
Mabel Leon’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Mary Stallings sang of a ‘mellow cello’ in Benny Carter’s ‘When Lights are Low’ at A Place for Jazz on Friday – and that was her to a T. A slender woman of soul-deep elegance, an actor’s presence, an adventurous spirit and an alto voice like a cello, Stallings swung mostly slow, mostly vintage, mostly love songs with a crisp and confident trio: pianist-musical director David Udolf, bassist Harvie S and drummer Steve Williams. She was fervent in ballads, bouncy in up-tunes, with the cool restraint of Nancy Wilson and the agility of Carmen McRae, but a sense of swing so distinctive she owned each tune.”
MARY STALLINGS SET LIST
Close Enough for Love
Everything I Love
When Lights Are Low
I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You
Moment to Moment
Old Devil Moon
Sweet and Lovely
I Got Rhythm
Stuck in a Dream
I Just Found Out About Love