By Andrew Poretz . . .
Mary Stallings, a world-renowned jazz vocalist who has sung professionally since her teens in the late 1950s, returned to Smoke for a four-night stand to continue the grand reopening of this terrific, upscale jazz venue. The San Francisco native has a long, impressive jazz resume, and is the mother of soul singer Adriana Evans. Ms. Stallings was off to a swinging start with the first of two opening night sets, comprised mainly of very vintage jazz standards.
Ms. Stallings, was backed by the Emmet Cohen Trio, with Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. The young Mr. Cohen, only 32, has made quite a name for himself in the past few years. He is a sensationally gifted pianist and composer whose infectious, visible joy is as delightful to watch as his accompaniment is to hear. The trio played a pair of lively instrumentals to start the set, including Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass,” an especially appropriate number considering the club’s location, sandwiched between Duke Ellington Boulevard and the newish restaurant “The Ellington.”
The star came to the stage dressed in a cream suit with large, onyx buttons, her wrists adorned with plenty of bangles and baubles (though no beads), and sporting a black face mask. Apparently recovering from a foot injury, she used a stool throughout the set. Opening with “Sometimes I’m Happy,” (Irving Caesar/Victor Youmans), she sang with her mask before finally revealing her beautiful smile after the solo break. Ms. Stallings, celebrating her 83rd birthday just a few days early, is a lovely woman who appears far younger than her years. She has a youthful voice, with a surprising suppleness and a warm, slightly smoky tone.
The 1930s composer Bernice Petkere had only two significant songs in her career, and Ms. Stallings performed them both in this set. The first, “Close Your Eyes,” is a shuffle swing covered by countless artists, and appears on her 2019 album, Songs Were Made to Sing. After a bluesy “Sweet and Lovely” (Charles N. Daniels/Harry Tobias), she sang the second, “Lullaby of the Leaves,” with lyrics by Joe Young, a writer best known for memorable but lightweight songs like “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blues” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Though she normally performs this as a swing number, she decided to try it as a very slow blues ballad. This proved to be a great choice. The arrangement, her interpretative skills and her lush singing burnished the song with a new beauty.
“After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton/Henry Creamer) was the most vintage song of the set, published more than a century ago. Mr. Cohen’s arrangement of the tune for Ms. Stallings and himself showed off his stride piano skills, and a solo that quoted “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
The star closed the set with “Night in Tunisia” originally a Dizzy Gillespie instrumental made for solos, with lyrics later added by Raymond Leveen. Ms. Stalling’s vocals were superb, and included a bit of scat singing, something she doles out sparingly. This number relies on strong drumming and here, Mr. Farnsworth shined. Mr. Cohen also made the most of the percussive aspect of the piano. He and Mr. Nakamura played off one another in some terrific soloing.
Ms. Stallings was in excellent form, with full command over her instrument, and a warm, intimate stage presence. The contributions of the Emmet Cohen Trio here cannot be overstated. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Nakamura in particular created a synergistic magic with the kind of unspoken eye communication the best improvisers use. Mr. Cohen, who has a mischievous quality, sometimes had a delighted expression when he glanced at the keys, as if his own hands surprised him with a brilliant riff. On even the most complex passages, there were no missed notes discerned. Mr. Nakamura’s melodic bass solos were a delight, and drummer Joe Farnsworth provided solid drumming throughout. Mr. Farnsworth, dressed “old-school” in a pale blue suit with a tie and a pocket square, bears some resemblance to actor Kevin Costner.
Mary Stallings makes few Big Apple appearances these days, and Smoke was the perfect spot for her triumphant return. The newly reopened club is gorgeous, with a music room and stage that’s “just right” in size, and an entirely separate bar area one must walk through from the club’s entrance to get to the music. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the sound is excellent. The menu is diverse and reasonable for an establishment of this caliber, and while I had no food, the meal at the next table looked and smelled scrumptious. Bring plenty of cash; a glass of wine will set you back $20, and there’s a surcharge if you use a credit card. For more information about Mary Stallings, visit marystallingsjazz.com. For more great shows at Smoke, visit smokejazz.com.
Cover photo by Stephen Splane
Photos by Andrew Poretz unless otherwise indicated
The Emmet Cohen Trio:
Piano: Emmet Cohen
Bass: Yasushi Nakamura
Drums: Joe Farnsworth
Smoke Jazz & Supper Club
2751 Broadway, NYC
August 11, 2022