Bay Area Native Mary Stallings Returns to SFJAZZ for Powerhouse Showcase


Vicente Archer (left), Clarence Penn, Mary Stallings and Steve Nelson perform at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco May 4 as part of the vocalist’s four-day residency.

(Photo: Ronald Davis)

Since opening its SFJAZZ Center in January 2013, the SFJAZZ organization has appointed a group of Resident Artistic Directors (RADs) every two years whose mission is to curate their own extended weekend each season. The 34-year old non-profit has acknowledged its roots when choosing these in-house ambassadors by including locally based RADs like John Santos and Zakir Hussain, who have deep connections to the group previously known as the San Francisco Jazz Organization and Jazz in the City before that.

Recently, vocalist Mary Stallings shined in her first Thursday-through-Sunday weekend performing five times over four days (May 4–7). Elegant and merry, the lifelong San Francisco resident showcased her cool side on opening and closing nights, sandwiching between them a Brazilian-themed concert on May 5, a show evoking the rowdy local jazz clubs of her youth on May 6 and a matinee as special guest of the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars on May 7.

SFJAZZ Founder and Executive/Artistic Director Randall Kline offered his customary introductory remarks during the opening evening. He pointed out that Stallings grew up mere blocks from the SFJAZZ Center, which is located in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood near City and Davies Symphony Halls and the War Memorial Opera House.

The 77-year old was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie while singing in clubs in the neighboring Fillmore district while she was still a teenager, Kline shared, and she was soon on the road with Count Basie.

Opening night was a celebration of Stallings’ latest record, Feelin’ Good (High Note 2015). Her all-star band, featuring Feelin’ Good pianist/Music Director Bruce Barth and vibraphonist Steve Nelson as well as double bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Clarence Penn, opened with an instrumental number before she joined them on the bandstand.

Stallings began with the warmth of “Close Your Eyes” before digging into a bluesy-then-sophisticated medley of “Try A Little Tenderness” and “Girl Talk,” covering a range of musical styles. Enlarged black-and-white photos were projected behind the rear terrace—first of her, perhaps while she was in her twenties, and later of the vocalist with the likes of Gillespie, vibraphonist Cal Tjader and vocalist Billy Eckstine.

Before delving into Neil Hefti’s “L’il Darlin’,” she explained how she recorded it and other songs on Feelin’ Good as an homage to the musicians who were inspirations to her while growing up and singing in San Francisco. Hanging out at the clubs to pick up as much as she could about music—and neither smoking nor drinking, she clarified—Stallings recalled a time when she and the establishment’s bartender were the only ones in the room to hear Thelonious Monk play.

Accompanied solely by Barth, she then sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to Monk’s “Reflections” with time-honed wisdom. (Stallings has sung in duo settings at the SFJAZZ Center with both Eric Reed and Kenny Barron, and she clearly shines in that format.)

Nelson’s crisp comping and Penn’s rimshot-laden solo were highlights of Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” while the latter’s brushwork and Barth’s elegant chords provided a lush foundation on the Eckstine gem “I Want To Talk About You.”

While introducing “Feelin’ Good” as the closing number to the first set, Stallings mentioned that Archer’s recorded debut was on her 2001 album Live At The Village Vanguard for MAXJAZZ. He’s since gone on to high-profile gigs with keyboardist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

Stallings came back with the quartet at the beginning of the second set, which was a combination of uptempo numbers (“I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Afro Blue”) and ballads (“Yesterdays,” “Soft Winds”).

On closing night, Kline returned to remind audiences that Stallings was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at SFJAZZ’s 2011 Gala. He then promised that an enjoyable night of chamber jazz was at hand.

Billed as “Mary Stallings Duos with Cyrus Chestnut & Warren Wolf,” the performance turned out to be two sets of mostly trios. The instrumentalists did start the program with two duo pieces, with Wolf addressing the audience after the opening number and Chestnut after the follow-up.

SFJAZZ Collective member Wolf (who had flown in that morning from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) pointed out that he and Chestnut are both Baltimore natives. Wolf admitted that Chestnut’s The Darkness Before The Dawn (Atlantic 1995) was one of the first jazz CDs he bought.

The combination of Stallings vocals with piano and vibraphone was a unique and ideal instrumentation for “East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)” and “Sweet Lorraine.” For “Day By Day,” Wolf comped on vibraphone but soloed on the adjacent marimba.

The two Mary Stallings duos came next, with Wolf on marimba for “Easy Living” and Chestnut on piano for “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Wolf shifted between vibraphone and marimba for the spirited set closer, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.”

Chestnut and Wolf began the second half with another duet before Stallings joined them and joked that she was tired (from four previous shows) and not drunk and would be seated throughout the last of her many sets that weekend. The clarity of her delivery on “A Foggy Day” confirmed that her vocal strength was indeed intact.

Eschewing any mention of the song title in her introduction, Stallings, buoyed by Wolf and Chestnut, applied her warm vocals to a delicate rendition of “Body And Soul.” Chestnut capped off their interpretation with a solo that was the perfect intersection of ethos, pathos and logos.

After finishing strong with a version of “Exactly Like You,” which was both sweet and slightly sassy (not unlike Stallings’ stage persona), and a sultry version of “Black Coffee,” the trio exited victoriously.

The house lights went up, but the audience demanded more. Surprised, the three returned and arranged for an encore of “I Got Rhythm.” Stallings seemed re-energized and even initiated some call-and-response scatting with Chestnut before finally concluding an impressive weekend of music. DB

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