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Local Jazz Artists Team Up On Christmas CD

Maria Howell and Noel Friedline
Gwendolyn Glenn
Maria Howell and Noel Freidline perform music from their new Christmas album.

Christmas is always a special time to reminisce and think about family members and holiday traditions for local jazz vocalist and pianist Maria Howell and Noel Freidline. The two international performers have recorded and played together for almost 10 years, so this year they decided to release their first Christmas album together — "Merry Christmas My Dear," on CD and vinyl. They’ve added their own flavor to classic holiday tunes and talked about them at their release party this month with WFAE’s "All Things Considered" host, Gwendolyn Glenn.


Gwendolyn Glenn:  So how did you guys pick what you wanted on the album?

Noel Freidline: We tried to be strategic about what we wanted on this. We looked around and saw what we’re doing fits in jazz but also adult contemporary. For example, we’ve got a gospel arrangement of "Silent Night" and pulled a more obscure tune of "Do You Hear What I Hear" in a Pat Metheny sort of thing.

Maria Howell: I’m a big public radio supporter and I remember earlier in my career and I listened to public radio and used to hear Pat Methney all the time, so all those artists like Spyro Gyro, their music really touched me. One thing I love about this recording is that it is a mixture of vocals and instrumentals and it reminds me of one of my favorite artists, Ms. Nancy Wilson and the Cannon Ball Adderly. 

Glenn: One of my favorites, too.

Howell: I thought that was a great concept that they shared equal value, and that’s what we’ve accomplished on this one. I love that.

Freidline: One of the tunes that we grabbed ,and I love what Maria has done with it, and that’s Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas.” We took it and we swung it and that doesn’t always work but that tune, it wrote itself. Donny wrote and the source material is so strong and you can do almost anyting to it and it is still strong.

Glenn: That is my favorite Christmas song.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
Maria Howell performs.

Howell: So you will have two favorite versions, Donny Hathaway’s and ours. 

Glenn: That song has been done by so many, but Donny does it in a way you can immediately tell it’s him. Did that intimidate you at all when you were doing this?

Howell: I won’t say it intimidated me. I pushed that out of my brain about people’s expectations about it. I just wanted to put my heart in it. I just said, "Don’t worry about it. You love it. Just keep it going."

Glenn: Your favorite on this album?

Howell: Noel took one song and restructured some of the lyrics. It’s the opening of the whole CD, which is "Merry Christmas, My Dear," which is the title. And then of course ‘This Christmas," and then "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "My Favorite Things."

Freidline: Years ago, I was stumbling and was messing around with Dave Brubeck’s "Take Five," and I felt "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" fit very well with the top of it. It has the "Take Five" signature feel of it. And what Maria does on "Silent Night," she just took it to church.

Glenn: How large is the band? Tell me about the band.

Freidline: We have a core group. There’s five of us: piano, bass, drum, sax and lead vocals. We had strings, a man out of Nashville, guitarist out of Florida that did tracks for us, and Lavelle Bradford is a Charlotte jazz pianist — just spectacular musicians came in and enhanced the tunes.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
Jazz vocalist Maria Howell and pianist Noel Freidline talk about their new Christmas CD during the release party

Glenn: What do you want to tell people about this Christmas album so it doesn’t get lost in these 50 million others out there?

Freidline: I would just say just listen to it once, check it out and see if you dig it.

Howell: And I believe if they listen, they’ll understand it’s like a warm blanket on a cold winter day. People say, "This makes me feel so cozy." You’ll feel the musical connection we have, and if you take a moment to listen and just feel, you’ll be very pleased.

Glenn: Thank you for being with us, and I wish you much success on the CD and vinyl.