From Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Jordan to Billy Eckstine and Count Basie, San Francisco jazz singer Mary Stallings has never lacked for heavyweight fans. Her profile may have waxed and waned since she made her recording debut in 1961 with Cal Tjader, but she’s never delivered anything but pure class and deep soul. With a nearly 30-year gap in her discography, she’s made every release count since she returned to the studio in the early 1990s, recording a series of stellar albums accompanied by jazz’s finest improvisers.
Her latest release, 2013’s But Beautiful (HighNote), reunites her with the ebulliently swinging pianist Eric Reed on a program of sumptuous ballads (full disclosure: I wrote the album’s liner notes). He’ll be on hand Friday, Feb. 13, when she returns to SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium, along with the album’s bassist Mike Gurrola, and the reliably commanding drummer Willie Jones III.
Reed served an essential role on Stallings' acclaimed 2001 album Live at the Village Vanguard (MaxJazz), playing and arranging all the songs on a sensational set that prompted the New York Times to muse that “perhaps the best jazz singer singing today is a woman almost everybody seems to have missed.”
She’s certainly been honored in her hometown. SFJAZZ gave her a lifetime Beacon Award in 2006, and featured her at the new center’s gala opening in 2013. With few signs of wear, her voice is still warm, burnished and tinged with a bluesy Dinah Washington edge. It’s a shiver-inducing sound that turns even familiar standards into riveting confessions—and even well-traveled veterans like Reed are subject to her spell.
“If you want to talk about jazz, the subtleties, the intricacies, the storytelling and the harmonies, there isn’t a woman alive that sings better than Mary Stallings,” the pianist told me several years ago. “She’s a woman who sings with soul and swing.”