There’s a lot to learn from San Francisco-based vocalist Mary Stallings. The nuanced phrasing. The unswerving feel. The emotional connection to the text. And that voice—as buttery as ever, 60 years into her career.
Three months shy of her 80th birthday, Stallings will release Songs Were Made to Sing (Smoke Sessions Records), a baker’s dozen of time-polished standards. This record is Stallings’ fourteenth, cut an astonishing 58 years after her first release in 1961, Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings (Fantasy Records), with vibraphonist Cal Tjader. To the dismay of many, after this debut Stallings didn’t record another solo album for almost 30 years.
But Stallings remained active during that time: she sang with Billy Eckstine, Dizzie Gillespie, and Count Basie; she toured alongside Ella Fitzgerald, among others; she ran her own business and raised her daughter, R&B singer Adriana Evans. And when she returned to the studio, it was in full force. She’s recorded fairly consistently since the early 1990s, with four albums for Concord Jazz, four for High Note, two for Clarity, and one-offs for MAXJazz and Half Note. More recently, she served as Resident Artistic Director for SFJAZZ, a non-profit that produces and promotes jazz events in the Bay area.
The depth of Stallings’ experience shows up in subtle ways on the new album. She’ll extend a straight tone perfectly (“Lover Man”) or twist a melody without thinking about it (“Round Midnight”). She’ll slip into a groove as easily as she would a comfortable chair (“Sugar”) or glide through a ballad breezily (“Give Me The Simple Life”). This kind of artistic discernment is a lifetime in the making. Stallings will sing from the new disc at its New York launch, May 16-18 at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club.
Besides being consummate swing musicians, the vocal trio Duchess—Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou—is an entertaining bunch. On their 2017-18 podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, devoted to helping folks find harmony in all walks of life, they offer up more than just engaging musical commentary and interviews with leading jazz musicians. Through their handsome website they point listeners to must-hear tracks (from singer Jessica Molaskey’s Portraits of Joni, for example), wacky videos (“VIRAL FUNNY cat WALKING in pirate costume”), and miscellaneous stuff (recipes, fan updates, tidying tips, etc.). Such a great idea.
Another great idea: Duchess and her regular band (pianist Michael Cabe, guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Jared Schonig) will be recording live at Jazz Standard on May 7-8. They’ll perform selections from their two albums Duchess (2015) and Laughing At Life (2017), along with some new material; Anzic Records, also the label for these two earlier efforts, will release the live recording later this year. (The trio is crowdfunding the album through their website, and all proceeds from the Jazz Standard gig go toward album costs.)
One of Duchess’ favorite interviewees is singer John Dokes, with whom Gardner had worked fronting the George Gee and His Swing Orchestra in 2015. (Scroll way down to find the podcast interview with him.) Dokes, a warm, bluesey crooner with a soulful sound, plans to drop True Love (Rondette), his third album, at The Django on May 3. One of Dokes’ smartest moves with this album was his choice of pianist Steve Einerson as arranger—Einerson’s settings show off Dokes’ romantic vocalizing to best advantage. Check out “Comes Love” as a seductive Latin tune, “Eleanor Rigby” in a spinning 6/8, and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” in a surprising double-time feel. Superb.
Just off of a tour of the Czech Republic, singer/songwriter Aimee Allen re-enters the New York limelight on the tailwind of a shiny new album, Wings Uncaged (Azuline Music). The versatile—and busy—singer will play Gin Fizz on May 4 and 23, Bar Next Door on May 13, Russian Samovar on May 19, and Bunna Cafe on May 30.
Afterwords: Each month Manhattan Transfer singer Janis Siegel and New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan host Vocal Mania, a series that showcases rising star vocalists. (Duchess held the featured guest spot this past January.) Formerly at Zinc Bar, this month the event moves to the Birdland Theater on May 28. Marlene Ver Plank is the honoree at Midday Jazz Midtown on May 1; singers Ben Cassara, Carol Fredette, Carrie Jackson,Daryl Sherman, and Sandy Stewart will take the stage in remembrance of their friend and colleague.
(Reprinted from the May 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record)