Everybody sounds good in the shower, but to be a working musician is different. There is the honing of a craft, with all the fine details of diction and theory and timing and leading a band. You need to know your preferred key for every tune, you need to keep the rhythms and the forms, and you need to be able to hold a crowd — whether a couple dozen or a couple thousand. In other words, most singers just sing; only a few singers are musicians. Maria Howell is a musician, and plenty of Charlotte’s finest musicians are ready to testify to that.
“Maria is an incredible musical conversation partner,” says pianist Noel Freidline, Howell’s most frequent collaborator. The two have released multiple albums together and even co-host a website so fans can find where they’re performing together next. “She is naturally gifted and she works hard at her craft. And beyond that, she’s a terrific human — as genuine and gracious off the stage as she is on it.”
Veteran saxophonist and bandleader Ziad Rabie loves working with Howell as well.
“She’s a true professional,” he says. “She makes a performance easy for everyone. Maria is an incredible singer, and she’s also a great entertainer.”
For that reason, Rabie and his band — including Freidline, Ron Brendle on bass, and Alfred Sergel IV on drums — were thrilled to have Howell join them for the re-opening of the Jazz at the Bechtler series on September 10. That popular series always sells out, and the band will surely be ready to unleash following a long period apart.
A Gastonia native, Maria Howell has taken her craft seriously since singing in church and with choirs as a young person. The energy of a congregation calling back to her while she sang a solo in church opened the musical world to her. She thought she wanted to sing professionally, but traditional music school routes did not present themselves. She pursued a medical degree in college but kept pushing herself musically.
Her former high school choir teacher testified as much in the middle of one of Howell’s Bechtler gigs a few years ago.
“She stood up after I recognized her from the stage,” Howell recalled. “She told the crowd that she remembered me saying, ‘I want to sing every note better than the last note.’ And that’s right. I’m my own challenge. I’m my own standard. And I’m still pushing myself.”
Howell has done a good bit of acting as well, appearing in numerous television shows and feature films. Her career jump-started when she landed a role in the film The Color Purple, and has continued from there, recently including a role in Hidden Figures. She’s also done animation, video games, voice-over work, and karaoke tracks — almost everything a talented voice like hers could be employed for.
With every opportunity, she’s using her craft to tell a story in the way that only Maria Howell can. You can catch her versatility on display in one of her multiple upcoming performances in Charlotte.
During an August engagement at Middle C Jazz Club, where she and Freidline are regular performers, the pair and their band will take on the catalog of Chicago’s horn-infused rock.
“I think of myself as a stylist,” Howell says. “I can work in any genre. I want to be able to tell a story, and to do it in a way that has integrity, class, and style.”
She’s also scheduled to perform at the newly reconstructed Memorial Stadium for an upcoming Tosco Music Party, a local mash-up of acoustic performances that serves as a mix of MTV Unplugged and Charlotte’s version of the Governor’s Ball. The stadium concert will be part of the popular Charlotte SHOUT festival, to take place throughout Uptown in late September.
At the Bechtler and in other jazz-friendly settings, she will float atop her rhythm section while scatting a bebop line, then draw tears with an old torch song, following that by digging deep into the blues tradition. Along the way, you’ll see and hear the influence of Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan.
Howell knows the tradition deeply. She’s been a professional long enough, though, that now she’s influencing others.
Forced to choose a preference in genre, Howell returns to The Great American Songbook, a collection of songs from the best and most influential composers from the first half of the 20th century.
“Those songs provoke wonder,” she says. “They don’t tell you everything. They invite you to imagine settings along with the songwriter and the performer.”
For someone ready to tell a story through all the little details of her craft, they are the perfect vehicle. She’s sure to have just the right songs picked out when she and her fellow musicians hit the stages around Charlotte and beyond in the coming months.
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