Over a decade, jazz duo Noel Freidline and Maria Howell have built a unique musical partnership.
by Vanessa Infanzon
Jazz artists Noel Freidline and Maria Howell met playing a gig at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s jazz series in 2010. It was instant chemistry, Freidline says, and the duo known as Noel & Maria has been making music together ever since.
Freidline sings and plays piano and keyboard, and Howell is on vocals. They perform at local venues and throughout the Southeast. Typically, they play songs you’ve heard before, but they might be repackaged or stylized, Howell says. For example, you might hear Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” but reimagined as a jazz waltz.
In mid-March, as music venues shuttered as a response to the pandemic, Noel & Maria started Notes from Middle C, a Facebook Live performance on Wednesday nights. The first two shows took place at Middle C Jazz, the uptown music venue owned by Larry and Adam Farber that opened in late 2019. Noel & Maria moved the show to Freidline’s home studio on Moonlight Lane, a fitting street name for their music, when the club closed temporarily due to the state’s stay-at-home guidelines. Viewers from around the world tuned in to their 13 performances. The easy banter between sets, and the medleys and tunes by music greats such as Carole King and James Taylor brought together a community of listeners.
Noel & Maria’s music partnership is built on trust, vital to musicians who do a lot of improvising, Freidline says. They hear music the same way and never have to explain something to the other when they’re rehearsing or performing.
“They’ve cultivated that ability to give and take, and build off of each other,” says Tom Gabbard, CEO and president of Blumenthal Performing Arts.
“I think there’s incredible mutual respect,” adds Farber, a music-industry veteran who is managing partner of the EastCoast Entertainment agency. “I think they’re in awe of each other’s musical talents. Neither one of them tries to usurp the other’s talent. They know how to bounce off each other. They’re really great friends — you can’t fake that.”
While they typically play covers, Noel & Maria created their first original music in May when Tosco Music Party took its popular music series virtual. But Howell says a show can be equally enjoyable whether they’re performing original songs or familiar tunes. “I’ve always been of the mindset that you don’t come here for the songs,” Howell says. “You come here for what you’re going to get, what you’re going to feel. People are attracted to that chemistry. No matter what song we do, we’re putting our stamp on it.”
Howell grew up in Gastonia, the oldest of six children. At 13, she sang in the church choir while her mom played the trumpet. She majored in pre-med and biology at Winston Salem State University but was always involved in the college’s choir.
When auditions for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple came to Greensboro, family friends encouraged Howell to go, despite her fear. At the casting call, she stood on stage silently with a group of women. After everyone left, Howell handed the casting director a headshot and added, “By the way, I sing too.” When asked what songs she knew, Howell sang Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” in the casting director’s ear.
“I was that bashful,” Howell explains. “It’s hard to believe that you couldn’t make me get in front of a crowd to sing by myself a long time ago. I had to get over it in a real big hurry.” After one more screen test, she received a callback for a solo in the movie’s choir scene. She got the part.
After college, Howell performed at Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar on the corner of North Tryon and 7th streets from 1985-1990. Over the next couple of decades, her career took her to New York City, Japan, then Atlanta. She recorded voice overs and acted in commercials, film and TV. Her film credits include The Blind Side, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Hidden Figures, and she had a recurring role in the NBC TV series Revolution.
All the while, Howell never stopped singing. At one point, she was playing with seven different bands and became known as “the girl who didn’t need to rehearse.” Now, Howell lives a bicoastal life, keeping homes in California and Charlotte. Her next project, One Thousand Flames, is being filmed in London.
Freidline grew up taking piano lessons in his hometown of Clearwater, Kansas, about 20 miles from Wichita. His two brothers were much older, so he had to find a way to entertain himself. In eighth grade, a teacher introduced Freidline to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s album Time Out. While sitting in a dark auditorium at the Wichita Jazz Festival, Freidline thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Freidline started at Wichita State University as a music major and finished at the University of North Florida, playing gigs throughout his college career. After graduation in 1991, he worked on cruise ships and in restaurants (he met his wife in one of them). He put together The Noel Freidline Quartet, and they performed five to six nights a week throughout the Southeast. On a whim, he and the band flew to Las Vegas for an audition at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in 2000. They were offered a contract as they walked off the stage.
By 2003, Freidline and his wife, April, and their three young children were ready to put down roots. They chose Charlotte because it was centrally located, and he was familiar with the city from performing at Springfest in the 1990s. He came off the road in 2004 to accept a teaching position at Davidson Day School and became an adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte in 2006.
COVID-19 has taught Freidline and Howell they can change and adapt – even engage audiences through a tiny camera in a smartphone. “We get to do what we love,” Howell says. “Just the fact that we’re still learning and discovering is really special at this point.” SP
Photographs: April Freidline Photography