Charlotte, North Carolina is a city sprouting with talent. It's blossomed over the years with respect to business boom, sports, in addition to the arts. That latter statement about the imaginative and cultivated vibes, it brings us to the meat of this conversation.
On August 2, 2019, pianist, composer, vocalist, educator, and musical arrainger, Noel Freidline along with songbird and actress, Maria Howell released a stunning rendition to Nat King Cole’s single Straighten Up and Fly Right. The original song emphasized light vocals from the great Nat King Cole with more twang on a flat piano [since the original song pronounced in 1943, we could expect that]. Noel and Maria definitely switched it a bit to compliment the break in this generation where musicals are trickling with a little more oomph. Maria’s beautiful vocals cut vigorously against the trumpet and tuneful piano. Noel, on the keys of course, tickles the ivories to liven up the spirit of the song and delivers a tantalizing ending. Straighten Up and Fly Right has original veracity, but the tempo is sped up just a little—It’s an exceptional piece, which compliments both jazz as well as rhythm and blues, the perfect joggle to add flavor to your next wedding reception or dinner party. It’s an eloquent composition reconstructed by the most skillful pianist and singer in the music business.
Noel said that Straighten Up and Fly Right is an amazing song, but he and Maria embarked on it accidentally. “We had other arrangements that we were going to do,” shares Noel. "We went into the studio because we were shooting a audio-video together and we were doing it in front of a live audience. We literally were just doing a warm-up number for the audio engineer. Music is something that you cannot predict. That time, when we started playing, the band was swinging, and Maria chanted. We had a real good time with it, and our video folks and our audio person had already recorded it. Straighten Up and Fly Right is one of the best tracks that we did, and we did not intend to record it. That’s literally, how we ended up with it. It was truly in the moment. I think a lot of times, jazz is that way and music is that way. It’s best when it’s in the moment. You can never recreate the magic. I think we had a magical moment and we caught it when the tape was rolling.”
The magic-- Straighten Up and Fly Right
Noel and Maria have worked together over 27 years, so as you can imagine, their energy is insanely beautiful. “It’s amazing,” says Noel. "Maria Howell is one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever worked with and as a vocalist; I can’t really describe what a privilege it is to work with someone of her caliber. Not only is it her level of talent, but she’s genuinely one of the most kind, gracious, enthusiastic and committed people that I’ve ever met in my entire life. You see a lot of artist who are great with their fans, but then they get behind the scenes and they might be a different person, but Maria is just the real deal," Noel continued to describe the affects of their partnership after almost three decades of creating music. "I never get tired of being on the scene with her. I never get tired of spending time with her. She’s just amazing.”
Noel and Maria have an emphatic working relationship that won’t ever go stale. They know their roles. No egos, and the respect is mutual.
The composers released Straighten Up and Fly Right on August 2nd. They plan to release another session called Moon Dance. Noel said the rendition is nothing like the original. Moon Dance is his favorite project out of all the series he’s done.
Although Noel loves classical, he’s not married to one genre or style. “I think the thing that makes jazz so great is the ability to pull from all these different eras. It’s such a big genre, and it has room for everybody and everything. In music, the one thing that everyone seems to respond to regardless of their generation or background is sincerity and heart. That’s something you can’t teach. Either you play with heart and sincerity or you don’t. Someone pulled me aside long ago, and told me, ‘If you ever forget, it’s a privilege to play in the world of music.’ I have never forgotten that. I don’t take it for granted. I try not to feel entitled. I enjoy it now as much as I did as a kid.”
Speaking of his trek as a kid, Noel said that if he could go back and give his younger self [the younger musician] some advice, he’d say… "If there was one thing that I could tell myself, and really convince myself, it would be, “Don’t worry about what other people think. Just play your music. Be you. don’t try to be someone else. Don’t please anyone around you. Just be you. I would reassure myself and say, ‘Listen, it’s going to be hard work. Anything you’re doing is worth the hard work. If it were easy, everyone would do it so just stay on the course. Try not to get discouraged. Try not to get frustrated and just remember, it’s going to take room to grow.
Just stay the course. It’s going to be okay.”
Profound and erudite, Noel is the musician who’s truly mastered his destiny.
Background on the musicians
Noel Friedline graduated Magnum Cum Laud with a Bachelors Degree in Music from the University of Florida. Never waning as an exemplary pianist, he’s lead his own group called the Noel Freidline Quintet. Noel recorded 8 CD’s. He released a collaboration project with Maria Howell in 2018 called Old Devil Moon. Noel performed at Jazz concerts around the world. He had a 3-year residence at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and performed for actor Julia Roberts surprise birthday party.
Charlotte Magazine named Noel Best Jazz Musician in 2006 and 2009. Metrolina Theater Association of the Carolinas named him Best Musical Director. He’s a pop culture lecturer for theaters and museums. Blumenthal Performing Arts Association presented Noel with the Center Stage Award in 2011(Charlotte, NC) for his excellent service to the arts. Jacksonville Jazz Hall of Fame inducted Noel in 2015.
Noel performs frequently with the Charlotte Symphony. He is also a lecturer of Music at the University of North Carolina. Noel received many accolades through the years. Even though we've added a few bullet-points of those marveling moments, it’s just a rundown. It’s not even close to the numerical value of awards and mentions. Not even.
Maria Howell is a native of Gastonia, NC. Her name should sound memorable. If you ever watched the Color Purple, then you should remember a scouring scene at the end when Suge Avery busts through the church doors, while singing over the everybody, including the choir girl, God is Trying to Tell You Something. Maria Howell is the choir soloist, who sorta backed off and let Suge sing.
Since The Color Purple Maria has performed with pioneering singers and songwriters including Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, and Earl Klugh just to name a few. She performed in Asia for about 6 years, and then she relocated back to the United States. Maria performed at the Sambuca Jazz Café for 9 years. She does voice-overs as well. Maria has appeared on Lifetime series called Army Wives, Mark Cherry’s Devious Maids, Revolutions and Aquarius. She made appearances on Finding Carter. Maria has theatrical credits that include The Blind Side, What to Expect When Expecting, The Good Lie, and Hunger Games: Catching Fire in addition to Saints & Sinners. When she isn't dabbling in the arts, she's a philanthropist, and serves on the board for Students without Mothers.
Their integrity beyond musicianship is astounding. Noel and Maria are the perfect example of waymakers, that truly walk to the beat of their own horns.
Follow Noel and Maria on their website to stay up-to-minute with their upcoming releases here.