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Maria Howell Sings Classics Her Way at Bechtler

by John Schacht

June 25, 2015

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Jazz at the Bechtler dates from a prior year; Maria Howell is appearing July 3 and 4; tickets are still available for Saturday, July 4.

The big band era stretched from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, and is largely recognized as the golden age for song interpreters. Operating under the Tin Pan Alley publishing model, the goal was to have as many singers as possible record and perform a song. It’s the model that singers like Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra cut their teeth on, and one that required them to perform singular versions of familiar songs in order to stand out from the masses.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s first superstar was a song interpreter, too; Elvis’ crossover success came in large part from his ability to “countrify” the blues and provide a bluesy underbelly to country songs – his first successful single featured bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Even into the early 60s, songwriters at the Brill Building churned out hits for Teen Idols to interpret.

But in the mid-60s, originality became the sin qua non for popular music. Stylists and unique interpreters of standards were relegated to back seats in the business, one dismissive step above tribute acts and wedding reception cover bands. There they remain, with the occasional Tony Bennett duets LP the exception proving the rule.

So for Maria Howell, who appears with the Ziad Jazz Quartet at next weekend’s Jazz at the Bechtler dates July 3 and 4, the standards she sings represent more than just familiar tunes out of the American Songbook. They represent an endangered art form, and music that could slip into the past for good.

Maria Howell in The Color Purple

“This is a lost art form in my opinion,” says the Gastonia-born Howell, who now spends her time between Atlanta and Los Angeles. “I feel like I’m part of that movement that keeps this music, this genre, alive. I do other things where I have to do other things, but this is my passion.”

Charlotte holds a special place in Howell’s heart — this will be her fifth Jazz at the Bechtler appearance — as she got her start singing jazz standards here in the mid-80s, eventually performing six nights a week at Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar. She's parlayed that singing and performing talent into a long career that includes television and film roles, maybe the most memorable coming in The Color Purple (she’s the choir soloist). Today she has recurring roles in TV — she’s a regular on MTV’s Finding Carter — and regularly appears in films (two due out next year).

But singing is her passion, a passion that the members of the Ziad Jazz Quartet have first-hand familiarity with. Some, in fact, have backed Howell going back to the early 90s, and as far afield as Japan and California. Ziad Rabie credits Howell’s humility and honesty as her greatest assets — two skills intrinsic to a quality song interpreter.

“Behind her captivating confidence there is a grounded, driven artist always on a mission to become even better,” says Rabie, the band’s tenor saxophonist and leader. “Maria's sense of presence, being in the moment and singing from her heart is her biggest strength. She is definitely bringing it from a pure, sincere source.”

That ability comes from embracing her role as a song interpreter. Like the best stylists, Howell has the ability to put her personal stamp on songs. But that can only happen when a singer chooses material that speaks to them first.  

“I can’t be concerned with whether the audience likes it or not — I hope they do, but I can’t let that dictate my decision,” says Howell. “I am artist, first — I’m a storyteller and interpreter, so when I’m true to that then the audience — if they feel it and I’ve done my job as an artist — reaffirms the decision I made.”

The standards that draw Howell’s interest typically have a “mystique” to the lyrics, she says, leaving the imagination of the listener — or the interpreter — to play a role in creating the song’s meaning.  Over the years she’s had a few signature songs, including “God Bless the Child,” the Billie Holliday favorite, “My Funny Valentine,” and “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a song indelibly associated with Nancy Wilson. Howell was intimidated by the song initially because she didn’t know if she could match the pain Wilson channeled into it, only to find that as the years went by her own life lessons would do it for her.

“I loved the song so much I wanted to go for it, and now, when I sing the song several years later, it’s like, ‘oh my god, that song was made for you,’ because I have lived some of that pain,” she says. Wilson recorded "Guess Who I Saw Today" in different variations over the years, and the changing nature of a song over time is another thing that draws Howell’s interest and keeps the material fresh. It’s something she learned in the early days of her career, when that six-nights-a-week-gig at Jonathan’s forced her to find different points of emphasis and meaning in the same old songs.

“Life itself, even on the recurring songs, it changes you to the point where it makes you evolve, where you do the songs differently anyway,” she says. “I’m just the type of artist, I get bored, so I have to come up with something new for my own amusement and my own entertainment. Fortunately, the audience benefits from that.”

That’s certainly been true of her appearances at the Bechtler, which are serving as an annual homecoming for the singer. More than just a return to where her career began, though, it’s a gig that recharges her batteries and confirms, in real time, why she’s perfectly content singing from the great American Songbook.

“Last year I remember saying to Ziad, ‘I need this,’” Howell says of the reception she’s received from the Bechtler audience. “To come and get that shot of the Bechtler, of Charlotte, that helps me personally. Part of that is because Charlotte is where I started my career, and fortunately it was a positive, nurturing start, and so it will always and forever hold that gem inside of me. So after all these years to be able to go back and feel that magic, that beautiful vibe – I don’t know, I can’t describe it in words except to say, I need that.”

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Tags: jazz standards, Tin Pan Alley, Nancy Wilson, Brill Building, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Ziad Jazz Quartet, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

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