18 Jun 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
The Redlands Bowl Summer Music Festival kicks off its 96th season in stellar fashion on Friday with an ode to the Great White Way — Nicole Henry singing selections from “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables” and other hit shows backed by the Redlands Symphony Orchestra.
A Philadelphia native, the singer majored in theater at the University of Miami. Around the same time, she was the featured vocalist on tracks by progressive house and trance DJ/producer Noel W. Sanger.
“Miracle,” their 1998 pairing with Westbrook Project, reached the Billboard Dance Club chart.
Then Henry toured as a background singer for Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise and later became interested in jazz music. Her debut release, “The Nearness of You,” emerged in 2004 and immediately drew attention in Japan, where it hit the top 10.
Since then, Henry has put out five more full-length albums and an EP, encompassing studio and live recordings. Three went top 30 on Billboard’s jazz chart, while two live cover songs — Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Waiting in Vain” — fared even better on the trade magazine’s Smooth Jazz Songs tally.
She won a Soul Train Music Award in 2013 and sang the national anthem at the Orange Bowl last year. With Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as influences, Henry possesses an expressive, soulful voice that often recalls Whitney Houston and Natalie Cole. We connected with her via email in advance of her first Inland Empire appearance.
“Just being able to sing professionally for the last 18 years has been an incredible blessing,” says Nicole Henry. (Will Hunt photography)
Question: What are your thoughts about appearing at the Redlands Bowl?
Answer: It’s fabulous to be part of the beautiful “offering” that is Redlands Bowl Performing Arts. It’s just wonderful that the vision of the Bowl was to give all people free access to the arts. I’m a firm believer that the arts shape and reflect a civilization. When arts are supported in this way, it allows for community, conversation, understanding, learning, expression, fun and a collective celebration. So, I feel tasked with a fabulous responsibility.
Q: Will the “Broadway and Beyond” concert include your personal picks from the musicals and ones that work best with an orchestra?
A: As a lover of big and beautiful music, I think any song can work with orchestra. These are definitely some of my favorites, but this is only my first batch of [live] songs for an orchestra.
Q: You’ve done “Home” from “The Wiz” before on your 2013 live album, “So Good, So Right.” Will it make the setlist?
A: Yes, I’d bet good money on that.
Q: Since you earned a degree in theater, is singing compositions from musicals extra special for you?
A: Just being able to sing professionally for the last 18 years has been an incredible blessing. I’m fortunate to have been a direct part of so many people’s lives. So, it’s all special for me.
Q: Does preparing for the orchestral format present more challenges than your usual jazz or R&B-oriented concert?
A: It is a wonderful combination of limitations and freedom compared to a smaller format. Usually I’m with a quartet or quintet, where you can extend a song live, give more solos or talk in [the middle of] a song. But you can’t even begin to consider anything like that when you’ve got 70-plus people going in one direction. Once that train leaves the station it is not stopping. The freedom and fun of vocally soaring over 70-plus musical voices is unlike any other. Maybe it’s something like skydiving, ballroom dancing and crowd-surfing all in one.
Q: Having studied cello when you were young, do you ever find yourself watching cellists play during lyrical breaks in the songs at orchestral concerts?
A: Absolutely; although I try to save that for rehearsals because it’s easy to get lost in observing and miss my cue to come back in. Playing the cello is such a fulfilling experience. You feel the music in your core.
Q: On the impressive “Summer Sessions” EP, your smooth acoustic covers of Coldplay (“Magic”) and Howard Jones (“No One is to Blame”) were especially memorable. What was your goal with the 2015 James Bryan collaboration?
A: That guitar/vocal duo project was truly a reflection of my love for that format — songs in their simplest form, stripped down to their essence. I love acoustic music and I love a great lyric. I love all kinds of music and songwriters. I hope that is not my last project like that.
Q: Last year, you put out a luxurious jazz take on the standard “Moon River.” Are there any new recordings planned this year?
A: I’ve been working on a couple projects. I’m hoping to release a tribute to Nancy Wilson soon. The producer of my orchestra project, Kevin Surace, and I should be working on [another one] soon too. The [earliest] new release will likely be early 2020.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Redlands Magazine.
Broadway and Beyond
What: Nicole Henry and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Fetta
When: 8 p.m. June 21
Where: Redlands Bowl, 25 Grant St.
Tickets: Free admission
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