Just remembering a singer named Maria

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Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar, once an entertainment staple at the 7th Street corner near Spirit Square, is a distant memory. But the fans who once came weekly to see Maria Howell sing, before her career-making cameo in The Color Purple, came again – along with restauranteur Jonathan Gellman, performing a cameo of his own – as Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte hosted a “Celebrating 25 Years” concert last Sunday night.

Currently based in Atlanta, where she plays weekly at the Sambuca Jazz Café, Howell brought her keyboardist cohort with her, Mose Davis. There was plenty of heavy artillery to help them out, evoking the halcyon days of JazzCharlotte, the 7th Street Band, and a local jazz scene that wasn’t on the endangered list. Rodney Shelton spelled Davis at the Yamaha in a spot appearance, Ziad and John Alexander wielded tenor saxes, and Ron Brendle settled into a serious groove with his big bass fiddle.

Howell tends to shy away from being shunted into the jazz niche, but the core of her 16-song, two-hour playlist was jazz and the blues, including Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You,” George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” Carole King’s “A Natural Woman” (with the full Aretha Afro-do), and most impressively of all, a great standard for both Miles Davis and John Coltrane, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with Howell matching the swinging solos from Alexander and Davis.

Not that I’d dismiss Howell’s claims of eclecticism. While her mini-medley from Color Purple was jazzy in its better half, a coquettish “Sister,” Howell made “To Sir With Love” and “Just the Two of Us” (with a pinch of Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You”) very much her own without discarding their commerciality. “Moondance,” off Howell’s Acoustically Yours CD, was her most intriguing venture into terra incognita.

As her renown has grown over the years, so has Howell’s stage presence. She chatted up the crowd with an easy confidence she lacked back in 1985 – or when I caught her at JazzCharlotte a few years later – so she drew out the audience and their deep fondness for the singer. Clearly, the roomful of fans – largely from Charlotte but some traveling a healthy distance to Stonewall Street – was happy to see Howell back in the Queen City. With increasing boisterousness during the concert, there were shout-outs for Howell to return more frequently. For good and ample reasons.

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