Mary Stallings sang of a “mellow cello” in Benny Carter’s “When Lights are Low” at A Place for Jazz on Friday – and that was her to a T.
A slender woman of soul-deep elegance, an actor’s presence, an adventurous spirit and an alto voice like a cello, Stallings swung mostly slow, mostly vintage, mostly love songs with a crisp and confident trio: pianist/musical director David Udolf, bassist Harvie S and drummer Steve Williams.
She was fervent in ballads, bouncy in up-tunes, with the cool restraint of Nancy Wilson and the agility of Carmen McRae, but a sense of swing so distinctive she owned each tune.
In her opener “Close Enough for Love,” she highlighted her timing and tone, deepening both in “Everything;” then scat-singing for the first time in “Remember Love” and staying in a bouncy mood with “When Lights Are Low,” fading into a repeating coda.
She carefully settled herself on a stool, reflected, “I gotta get right for this one,” then luxuriated, as if changing into something more comfortable, into “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” a sumptuously expressive ballad with a tremendous arco bass solo.
The upbeat “Undecided” featured a joyfully clattering drum solo and scat vocals in dialog with the band.
The bossa “From Moment to Moment” felt a bit rushed, but Stallings finished the set strong with the blues, “You’re My Centerpiece,” mostly with just bass accompaniment. Stallings didn’t bring down the house, she brought it way up with her.
After the break she basked in the rhythmic bounce of “That Old Devil Moon” and “Sweet and Lovely” swung at a similar caffeinated pace before she slowed with “Yesterdays,” sung technically better than Billie Holiday did and with almost as much feeling.
“I’ve Got Rhythm” proved she did, “Dream Dancing with You” slowed things only a bit before she teased about giving us too many ballads — not possible! — then slowed way down into “Stuck in a Dream.”
“I Like It” went uptempo as both set-closer and encore: The band vamped while she left and returned, mirror image of the show’s sole diva moment when the band started the show before she joined them as impresario Tim Coakley introduced her.
They played the songs straight up, with no frills or fuss — but lots of low-key style. Stallings hit notes right on the nose, as did pianist Udolf, of course; but bassist Harvey S bent notes every which way but loose.
Stallings said drummer Williams was “a singer’s dream” as accompanist, and she was right.
After 25 years with the late, great Shirley Horn, he’s an old-school bebopper of impeccable time and taste, equally capable of the quietest possible brushwork and muscular uproar, and always right in the groove.
Stallings has etched a career arc parallel to Bettye LaVette’s: early success (with Louis Jordan, Cal Tjader, Count Basie and others), decades of eclipse, then a return to the spotlight with undiminished technical skill and increased depth and expressive power. Now in her early 70s, she seemed ageless on Friday, promising more of her rock-solid, elegantly expressive singing.
A Place for Jazz continues on October 12 with pianist Dick Hyman.