Mary Stallings doesn’t let opportunities go to waste. The San Francisco jazz singer’s rollercoaster career has surged and slackened ever since the release of her first album in 1961, Cal Tjader Plays/Mary Stallings Sings. Every few years, it seems, she’s rediscovered by the national press, and hailed once again as a supremely accomplished improviser at the top of her craft.
At home in the Bay Area, however, recognition of Stallings as one of the world’s finest jazz vocalists has never really waned. Now, at 77, she’s making the most of her stint as an SFJAZZ resident artistic director. Responsible for booking four nights in the center’s main Miner Auditorium, she uses her May 4–7 run to celebrate the unfathomably rich milieu that nurtured her as a young artist.
“I didn’t want everything to be redundant and repetitive,” says Stallings, who performs a different set of material with a changeable cast of all-stars at each concert. “I wanted to do something fresh and new and unexpected every night.”
She kicks off her residency Thursday with a program drawn from her most recent album, Feelin’ Good (HighNote), designed as a tribute to the jazz legends with whom she performed, such as Tjader, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Jordan. She’s accompanied by a quintet assembled by Bruce Barth, the pianist who played and arranged the music on Feelin’ Good.
Barth’s relationship with Stallings goes back to 2001, when he produced the album Live at the Village Vanguard that prompted the New York Times to gush that she’s “perhaps the best jazz singer singing today.” That was her third or fourth comeback, depending on how you count them.
“I love the sound of her voice,” Barth says. “She’s truly one of the greats. Mary has her own sound and her own way with a lyric and a tune. She swings so hard, and I can’t think of anyone who sings a ballad in such an achingly beautiful way.”
Barth is also the music director for Friday’s concert, a wild affair that spotlights Stallings’ affinity for Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms (the great percussionists Armando Peraza and Willie Bobo took the young singer under their wings). Building on Thursday’s sterling rhythm section with Vicente Archer (bass), Clarence Penn (drums), and Steve Nelson (vibes), Barth has added Brazilian guitar great Romero Lubambo and Israeli reed star Anat Cohen (who returns to the region for performances on May 11 at Kuumbwa and May 12 at Café Stritch with São Paulo’s formidable Trio Brasileiro).
The concert also features Maisa Duke’s Energia do Samba drum and dance company, capoeristas, and Stalling’s daughter Adriana Evans, a powerhouse Los Angeles R&B vocalist who has never before performed with her mother. “I had to really twist her arm,” Stallings says.
Saturday night’s “Jazzville” presentation hearkens back to the golden age of San Francisco nightlife in the 1950s, when Stallings performed at spots like Slim Jenkins Café on the same bill with comedians and dancers. Her band features Hammond B-3 organ great Chester Thompson, guitarist Ed Cherry, drummer Clarence Penn, and saxophonist Howard Wiley, who declares that “I’ve been in love with Mary since I was a kid and never miss a chance to play with her.” (Wiley’s not kidding, as he’ll be running over to join Meklit's album release concert at the Rickshaw Stop after the set with Stallings.)
For the "Jazzville" program, Stallings added comedian Lance Woods and tap dancer Unique Derique to the program, “because I wanted that kind of atmosphere,” she says. “The comedian comes out as emcee, then he brings out the dancer. That’s how it usually worked in the past. I come out as star of the show, and we’ll just groove from there on. Chester is such an exciting player.”
As befitting a singer who got her start in church, Saturday revelry gives way to quieter reflection on Sunday. In the afternoon she performs as a guest with the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, and in the evening plays a set of duo and trio pieces with soul-steeped pianist Cyrus Chestnut and SFJAZZ Collective vibraphonist Warren Wolf (“who played so beautifully with me at the Bobby Hutcherson tribute,” Stallings says).
To understand Stallings, you have to appreciate an era when singers, particularly African-American singers, couldn’t get by with imitation. Oh, a derivative artist might get some gigs, but respect from peers was earned by honing a personal sound and approach that added a new perspective to elements gleaned from one’s influences. Tall and regal even as a teenager, Stallings was a standout before she graduated from high school, regularly performing with established stars.
Her discography is small but unassailable, marked by interesting choices of repertoire and impeccable musicianship. More than anything, Stallings has always been herself -- a singer who reveals her expansive soul with each song.
Mary Stallings performs Thursday, May 4, through Sunday, May 7, at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. Tickets ($25 and up) and more info here.