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Mary Stallings: Feelin’ Good

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Navigating one of the greatest second acts in vocal-jazz history, San Francisco’s Mary Stallings burned bright in the ’60s, then disappeared for over a decade before triumphantly resurfacing in the ’80s. Five years ago she arrived at HighNote, where she’s achieved ripe perfection. There are times, particularly on ballads, when the similarity between Stallings and Nancy Wilson is startling: the same flawless phrasing and predilection for long notes; the same mink-wrapped delivery; the same coy jazz smarts. But with Stallings there’s a gritty under-layer, a hard-lessons-learned wisdom that aligns her as closely with Shirley Horn. On her three previous HighNote releases, Stallings and pianist Eric Reed achieved a stunning rapport. Here, Bruce Barth steps in. The results are every bit as exquisite, further heightened by three other exemplary players-bassist Peter Washington, drummer Kenny Washington and, on four tracks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson.

Stallings opens and closes with a mixed assortment of standards-“Close Your Eyes,” “Girl Talk,” “Yesterdays,” the title track, Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Billy Eckstine’s cashmere-soft “I Want to Talk About You”-all beautifully rendered. But it’s the album’s center that certifies her brilliance. The four-track section opens gently, Stallings alone with Barth caressing Monk’s “Reflections.” A strikingly diverse “Night in Tunisia” follows, featuring special guests Freddie Hendrix (trumpet) and Ray Mantilla (percussion). She downshifts into a lightly swung “Monk’s Dream,” then finishes with an exultant “Afro Blue.” Jazz singing simply doesn’t get any better.

Originally Published