Jonathans 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 Actors 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 wasnt 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 Holidays God Bless the Child, Peggy Lees I Love Being Here With You, George Shearings Lullaby of Birdland, Carole Kings 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 Id dismiss Howells 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 Rippertons Loving You) very much her own without discarding their commerciality. Moondance, off Howells Acoustically Yours CD, was her most intriguing venture into terra incognita.
As her renown has grown over the years, so has Howells 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.