"Avanti is not revolutionary, it is evolutionary."
- Herbie Hancock
When Kenn Hicks made his New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall in1984, the critic for The New York Times wrote, "With guidance - but not the kind that would turn him into one more efficient, standard tenor - Mr. Hicks should be able to carve out a special niche for himself." In the 20 years since, the American-born tenor has carved out something more than that special niche for himself, forging a one-of-a-kind career that has taken him from the great opera houses of Europe to the high-stakes world of pop recording, where he has worked musical magic for such pop superstars as Jennifer Lopez, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Sting, P. Diddy and The Spice Girls. Hicks recently completed work on the album for Oprah Winfrey's Pop Star Challenge, for which he served as both artistic director and vocal coach for the contestants. With Avanti, Kenn Hicks calls upon all his experience to give opera a new sound, filtered through the prism of jazz.
The word "avanti" means "before" or "forward," and a step ahead is where Avanti greets the listener. The title was suggested by a conversation Hicks had as a young singer with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, when he was singing PlÃ¡cido Domingo's vocal competition some years ago. The glamorous Tebaldi drew him aside and praised his voice, adding, "You must make them hear you. You must be avanti."
Staking out a new place in the musical landscape, Hicks delivers on this recording some of opera's most beautiful and popular tenor arias without altering a note or diluting their style, then commends them to the imagination of Marcus Miller, who conceived the project with him. A producer, composer and virtuoso bass guitarist who has toured with and played on hundreds of recordings for artists ranging from Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and LL Cool J, Miller has found a cool but dazzling jazz context for the big classical melodies on Avanti. He also brings in some A-list collaborators to play on the album, chief among them the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
Among the arias Hicks, Miller and their friends transform are such classics as Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot, "Recondita armonia" from Tosca and "Ch'ella mi creda" from The Girl of the Golden West, Massenet's "Pourquoi ma reveiller" from Werther, Bizet's "Je crois entendre encore" from The Pearl Fishers, Handel's "Ombra mai fu" from Xerxes and Verdi's "La donna Ã¨ mobile" from Rigoletto, as well as "Nebbie," an unusual art song by the 20th-century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. Herbie Hancock can be heard with Hicks on "Recondita armonia" (as well as its reprise) and "Nessun dorma." The disc also features a pair of newly arranged American spirituals - "A City Called Heaven" and "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" - and two original pieces by Hicks, the vocalise "Solitaire" and the song "The Longest Road."
Avanti is a unique and - given the tenor's prodigious career and experience - apt inspiration that grew out of a "what-if?" conversation with Marcus Miller. What if opera arias served to inspire jazz treatments? In time, Miller became intrigued by the concept, discovering that the links between the two styles were stronger and more interesting than anyone had imagined. Hicks recalls that when he sent Miller Respighi's "Nebbie," Miller thought the chords in it were pure John Coltrane.
Most young American opera singers, especially those who go to Europe to build their careers, do so firmly within the hierarchical world of opera. A curious and restless musician from childhood - he grew up in Texas, with frequent trips to New York with his mother - Hicks found himself working in the alternate universe of chart-topping pop music quite by accident.
The tenor has a solid foundation in the world of classical music, where he began serious study toward a career in opera when he was only 15 and spent his earliest years as a singer with the Houston Grand Opera. In addition to winning the prestigious Marian Anderson Award, he has been a top finalist in two of Italy's premiere vocal competitions - the Luciano Pavarotti Competition in Modena and the Carlo Bergonzi Verdi Competition in Busseto. Hicks' career has taken him to the recital, concert and opera stages of London, Paris, Milan, Rome, Stuttgart, Dresden, Frankfurt, Warsaw and other European cities, and he returned to the U.S. in 1993 to premiere the piano version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with pianist Cyprien Katsaris and mezzo-soprano Ewa Podles.
A little over a decade ago, in a break from his European career, Kenn Hicks found himself in Los Angeles visiting friends, who took him to a recording session of a major pop star. The guests happened to be there in a moment of crisis, and Hicks quickly tweaked an arrangement that threatened to derail the whole session. This bit of last-minute wizardry led to his being hired to lend his sophisticated musical skills to the freewheeling process that yield today's pop hits. He became a key member of the artist development staff at Motown Records and eventually formed his own company, Les Artistes Entertainment, Inc. Hicks never turned his back on opera, though. Today, he says with a laugh that he always wondered if "the record business would get weird enough" to let him blend his lifelong passion with his other "day job." It was Mme. Tebaldi who told him where it would happen. With the release of Avanti, the dream is a reality.
Kenn Hicks premiered Avanti to a sold out audience in a concert to benefit relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina at Lincoln Center on November 4, 2005.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Avanti (Intro)
2. Recondita Armmonita
3. Nessun Dorma
4. Je Crois Entendre
6. City Called Heaven
7. Chï¿½ella Mi Creda
9. Ombra Mai Fu
10. La Donna e Mobile
11. I Want Jesus To Walk With Me
12. Pourquoi Me Reveiller
13. Non Piangere Liu
14. Solitaire (Instrumental)
15. The Longest Road