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Among music presenters in Charlotte, tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie and his Jazz at the Bechtler series were among the first to swing back into action and move their concerts online, "virtually" intact, after the onset of the pandemic March 2020. Others, including Charlotte Symphony and JazzArts, have returned sooner to live performance, but the Bechtler has insouciantly kept chugging along, finishing its 2020-21 season of first Friday events virtually back in May, just before the CSO returned indoors. Like JazzArts, Jazz at the Bechtler summered in the open air. Retaining his poise, Rabie has brought his quartet, along with popular guest artist Maria Howell, back to the Bechtler right on time for a new season. Ticketing was paperless, proofs of vaccination was required outdoors before entering the museum, and masks were required unless eating or drinking. Lines to the bar, where assorted hors d'oeuvres were also offered, seemed longer than usual, suggesting that the audience knew an escape clause when they saw one.
Starting off with a hot blues, with pianist Noel Freidline and bassist Ron Brendle soloing zestfully after him, Rabie hardly needed to tell us how happy he was to be performing for a live audience again after 18 months. Ripping aside a flame-red mask studded with glitter or rhinestones as she stepped onstage to join the quartet, Howell seemed simpatico with the quartet's blazing opener, launching into Cole Porter’s "Too Darn Hot" over Rabie's obbligato. Turning up the wickedness a couple of notches from the Kinsey Report referenced in Porter's lyric, Howell and the Ziad Quartet went for the jugular with "Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)," a crowd-pleaser since 1924, with Friedline and Rabie soloing between Howell's ornery vocals.
After such a raunchy romp, the band must have figured that this was the best moment to ease down to a ballad tempo, and "My Ship" was the most luscious in the set, its wondrous Kurt Weill melody nearly matched by Ira Gershwin's lyrics. Friedline switched to a more electronic cocktail-hour sound at the keyboard, and Rabie contributed an eloquent half-chorus after Howell's vocal, ferrying her back to the bridge. None of the songs that followed would be quite so slow, but Howell modulated deftly between mid and uptempo selections, increasing the pace for Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" to a genial lope and leaving plenty of space for Freidline and Rabie to frolic. The pianist pranced around on the keys in a manner that recalled Erroll Garner in his intro and solo, and Rabie seemed to catch the same vibe as I had, slipping a few notes from "Misty" into his solo.
With fair warning that we would need to be alert to keep up with the blur of lyrics (by Johnny Mercer, it turned out), Howell and the quartet went willfully against the grain by red-lining Jerome Kern's "I’m Old Fashioned," speeding through two choruses in quick order. Freidline and Rabie took two choruses apiece before Howell's reprise, the pianist mischievously tossing in a snatch of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" to cement his old-fashioned credentials. Ably lurking behind and propelling the combo until this point, drummer Al Sergel asserted himself emphatically here, slowing the tempo for Howell's winsome climax.
If you keep up with Howell's discography, you know that Freidline is as much her collaborator as is the Ziad Quartet, so it wasn't shocking to see Rabie handing over the stage to Howell and the rhythm section for two or three songs. The first of these was customized by Freidline for Howell, a mashup of The Shirelles' hit (by Carole King), "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and Chicago's considerably less distinguished "Love Me Tomorrow," which the singer mercifully devoted less time to. Freidline himself seemed to be more inspired by Harold Arlen's "A Sleepin' Bee" after Brendle triggered the groove on bass, and Howell did full justice to the Truman Capote lyric. The wit of Freidline's quote from "Teach Me Tonight" was only faintly apropos four songs after Howell had referenced Nancy Wilson, but the connection between his snippet from "Honeysuckle Rose" and Howell's "Bee" was plain enough.
Rabie's return coincided with the most orgiastic arrangement so far, a mashup of two Bill Withers hits, "Lovely Day" and "Just the Two of Us." Here the balance was quite exquisite, for Howell clearly relished "Lovely Day," which framed the medley, while Rabie had far more to say on "Just the Two of Us," with two fiery rants. From here, the concert moved to higher and highest ground for Howell's final two selections. With Freidline switching to a more organ-like sound behind his Yamaha, Howells dug into "Unchain My Heart" as a tribute to Ray Charles, adding a little gospel tang to its rhythm-and-blues. Eager to take wing, Rabie and Freidline both played fills under Howell's vocals, the saxophonist taking the first solo before the keyboardist sermonized. After Howell revisited the lyric, her entire congregation joined in a rousing concluding riff.
Famous as a James Bond theme song popularized by Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch's "Nobody Does It Better" is so closely identified with Simon's 1977 single that the power ballad, with lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, has scarcely spawned any jazz covers. Just by being markedly different from the chart-topping hit, Howell's version was something of a revelation as she positively torched what is usually an aching anthem. Rabie's solo also revealed the ripeness of this melody for jazz improvisation, and the incantatory ending tacked on by Howell, her quartet jamming behind her, brought her audience spontaneously to their feet. It was an auspicious evening at the Bechtler, a triumph we could joyously cheer.