Mary Stallings tends to inspire superlatives, and Songs Were Made to Sing is sure to coax another chorus of well-deserved, overdue praise. Released on the verge of her 80th birthday, the album captures an ageless artist at full power, a peak she’s been hitting consistently since Concord relaunched her recording career with a series of excellent albums in the 1990s.
A teenage star in San Francisco who learned her craft performing with giants like Ben Webster, Teddy Edwards, and Louis Jordan, Stallings made an auspicious recording debut as a jazz singer with Cal Tjader in 1961. Though she spent the next dozen years touring with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and the Count Basie Orchestra, she didn’t release another album for almost three decades. “Rediscovered” anew several times since then, Stallings just keeps doing her thing, infusing songs with a surfeit of soul.
A piquant blues inflection marks every note Stallings sings, and her taste in material and collaborators never fails. She’s found another stellar accompanist/arranger here in pianist David Hazeltine, who leads a top-shelf rhythm section with bassist David Williams and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Right from the slow-burning opener “Stolen Moments,” featuring saxophonist Vincent Herring and trumpeter Eddie Henderson, the album returns again and again to themes of rue, longing, and wistful regret, Stallings’ emotional sweet spot.
The album’s many high points include her preaching the blues on Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics for “Blue Monk” (with some expert alto commentary from Herring), and a devastatingly slow and urgent take on “Ill Wind” that prompts exquisite muted accompaniment from Henderson. Stallings reveals the inimitable personality in her phrasing: The way she inserts pauses between words in the “Ill Wind” line “let me rest today,” for example, reminds you it’s a plea for death. A jazz artist of the highest order, Stallings keeps adding to her legacy.