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Over the years, vocalist Mary Stallings has typically subscribed to a philosophy summed up by the title of her 2012 album Don’t Look Back. But today, Stallings, who turned 80 in August, looks at things differently. “I’ve kind of changed that,” she acknowledges. “I still look forward, but I also have to look back at the progress I’ve made in my life and the people who’ve been around me. It’s through all of the adversities as well as the pleasures you’ve experienced that you grow into this other dimension.”
During her formative years in the San Francisco Bay area, Stallings didn’t see a clear distinction between the heavenly tunes she delivered in her family’s gospel group and the supposedly sinful bebop played by her uncle, saxophonist Orlando Stallings. “There’s a thing that happens in both a church and a blues or jazz club,” she notes. “You get happy and you want to express that — and you see the people dancing. So for me, it was pretty much the same.” Still, when she began crooning with local jazz groups in her teens, high school classmates such as Eddie Henderson were stunned at her audacity. “Eddie told me the kids would whisper, ‘Oooh, that’s Mary Stallings. She goes to jazz clubs,’” she notes with a laugh.
Henderson, a trumpeter, is one of the many fine contributors who appear on Stallings’ lovingly reflective new album Songs Were Made to Sing (Smoke Sessions). To prepare for the recording, cut during the ramp-up to her 80th birthday, Stallings worked with pianist and arranger David Hazeltine to assemble an ensemble capable of tackling compositions that span nearly a century; the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler chestnut “Ill Wind,” from which Stallings draws every drop of drama, dates to the 1930s, while the sassy, swinging “Third Time Is the Charm” combines the old and the new.
The late bassist Charles Metcalf wrote “Charm” as an instrumental, Stallings says, but she loved the melody so much she asked gifted lyricist K. Lawrence Dunham to put words to it. Dunham subsequently crafted a tale based on Metcalf’s own love affair; he and his wife married and separated twice before getting it right after wedding number three. “That story is so lush, and I really relate to it deeply,” Stallings says.
She did her own lyrical tinkering with 1943’s “While We’re Young,” changing the pronoun from “we’re” to “you’re” to make the message more direct. “It’s advice to the young — that they should enjoy life and take it to heart while they’re young,” she points out, adding, “That’s what keeps the music of jazz flowing.” —Michael Roberts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cpu88g33KZ0