Like any great singer, San Francisco's Mary Stallings has learned to be choosy. There are perfectly good songs she'll never perform because she's decided they just don't suit her style.
You have to feel kind of sorry for those tunes, because they'll never know quite how good they are. Whether caressing a tender ballad or playing with an uptempo tune, Stallings has an uncanny ability to bring out nuances and meanings that elude everyone else, as she amply demonstrated Friday at SFJAZZ Center, the close of a two-night run featuring just her and an unusually sensitive and reactive pianist. (Kenny Barron was at the keyboard Thursday, Eric Reed covered Friday.)
It's not just Stallings' sterling voice, still broad and stunningly dynamic at age of 74, or her languid approach to phrasing. More than that, she has a stunning ability to fully inhabit a song and make it reflect her life, which at this point includes a certain "been there before" wistfulness that communicates much more than vocal histrionics.
The most telling example came early Friday, as Stallings eased her way through Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On," a celebration of newfound love that in Stallings hands had just a hint of "here we go again" to keep it grounded.
"Old Devil Moon" revealed a playful side of Stallings' assured sense of phrasing, while "I've Got the World on String" was bouncy but not bragging, reflecting a mature appreciation for life's triumphs. It was enough to make a fledgling AARP member glad to be well removed from the Googlebus crowd, appreciating that with age comes, if not wisdom, at least some emotionally useful perspective.
Reed, who's been Stallings go-to accompanist for more than a decade, kept up a beautiful interplay with singer, punctuating but never dominating her songcraft. Highlights among his solo interludes include a wildly vamping run through Thelonious Monk's "San Francisco Holiday."
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