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Mary Stallings: But Beautiful

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Though two decades have passed since Mary Stallings’ dynamic emergence from an equally long semi-retirement, she remains an undervalued treasure. Perhaps it’s because her musicianship is so seamless, her vocal agility so seemingly effortless, that the tremendousness of her gift isn’t immediately obvious. As an interpreter of standards she is nonpareil. When she opts for straight-ahead readings, as here on “The Lamp Is Low,” “Autumn in New York” and the title track, the results are stunning. But Stallings’ greatest skill is in shaping new, utterly arresting approaches to shopworn tunes. Not since Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane delivered their definitive version has anyone so stunningly revisited “Dedicated to You,” here made charmingly light and breezy. Likewise, the traditionally solemn “Some Other Spring” is shot through with hopeful optimism. Conversely, the rakish “Just a Gigolo,” reworked as a third-person narrative, is transformed into a gently cautionary ballad.

Stallings’ secret weapon in her war against standard standards is pianist Eric Reed. Teaming with her for the fourth time, Reed, who also serves as musical director and principal arranger, is her vital partner in majestic ingenuity. Other players-bassist Mike Gurrola, drummer Wes Anderson, alternating (and, on “Dedicated to You,” intertwining) saxophonists Danny Janklow and Brian Clancy-further enrich several selections, but Stallings and Reed are the album’s essential yin and yang. And the four tracks they share as a duo are primary lessons in the art of voice-and-piano sublimity.

Originally Published