A lot of artists are unsettled on principle; they are driven by the unreasonable idea that there’s something they ought to do or can’t do. The jazz singer Mary Stallings, a San Francisco Bay Area native, is in her early 70s and undiminished; she sounds like someone who knows and likes the precise dimension of her talent.
She sang with Count Basie 40 years ago, before withdrawing from music for decades and coming back to it on her own terms, and since then her records have been worth seeking out. She’s got some vocal sound in common with Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae: polished, self-possessed and close to the ground, with blues and gospel language on simmer.
And she’s a wizard of the long tone, which she uses to laser into deep emotional zones; she leaves brackets of silence, and phrases with microscopic care. She is not for babies. She is not to be wasted on the young. On “Don’t Look Back,” out this week on High Note, she sings in front of the pianist Eric Reed’s trio; it’s an hour of slow ballads, or songs remade as slow ballads, mostly written by musicians who aren’t Great American Songwriters: Mal Waldron, Benny Carter, Roger Kellaway.
This record is wicked, up and down. Praise Mr. Reed, and the bassist Reuben Rogers and the drummer Carl Allen, who keep the tempos down and move sparingly around her. (Mr. Reed plays the role of accompanist and producer, and improvises for real here and there too, as on “Love Me or Leave Me.”) It coheres over the long haul, but it’s got a few tracks that will endure in particular: Mr. Kellaway’s “I Love the Way You Love Me” and maybe the title track, written by K. Lawrence Dunham and Johnny Mandel, in which she sings: “If you want your heart to stay forever young/let go of those memories of songs your heart has sung.” She doesn’t need to say it; her whole disposition implies it.
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