Ashley Henry: “I am just being completely honest with myself and opening myself up to all my influences”
Kevin Le Gendre
Friday, November 8, 2019
British pianist Ashley Henry’s mix of jazz, hip-hop and pop aesthetics are given full rein on his major label debut, Beautiful Vinyl Hunter. He spoke with Kevin Le Gendre about how his Jamaican heritage, studying with Jason Rebello and performing with electro-pop darlings Christine & The Queens have impacted on his musical development
The jazz musicians who experience the shock and awe of arena-sized venues are few and far between. It stands to reason that they have to press the reset button and adjust to the giant dimensions of such palaces of entertainment, if they are used to the much smaller clubs that keep them in gainful employ. As a member of the touring band of Christine & The Queens, currently megastars for the streaming generation, pianist Ashley Henry had to brace himself for certain gigs. The stadiums were off the scale.
“We played mostly auditoriums, especially when we toured France, where Christine [Héloïse Adelaide Letissier] is from. She sold out Bercy in Paris twice in a row, and that was like 20,000 capacity! I was doing my shows in between, so just the dynamic of playing an arena to then playing a 200 or 300-person cafe in Germany… it’s so different. But it taught me to switch it on and switch off, how to play different roles. When I’m playing with Christine it’s almost like being in the studio, but you’re on stage. Doing that world tour has definitely given me more clarity, and helped me take my own live show to a new level. The way I approach things now, I suppose it’s definitely given me a producer’s mind-set.”
Getting to play on five different keyboards every night, and switching between loads of sounds was so interestingAshley Henry
We’re sat outside Spiritland in Kings Cross, central London, which is somewhat appropriate given that the swish cafe-restaurant is known for a high-end audiophile soundsystem that Henry would appreciate. Though he has emerged as a skilled and expressive improviser in the last five years, working with established British and American bandleaders such as Jean Toussaint, Theo Croker and Keyon Harrold, as well as acting as musical director at the 2018 Jazz FM awards show, Henry has an avowed interest in technology. Which was another advantage of the Christine gig.
“Getting to play on five different keyboards every night, and switching between loads of sounds was so interesting,” he says. “Because I was already doing the jazz gigs I wanted to do I wasn’t jumping on [Christine’s] gig to flex and do loads of improv. I wanted to respect the music as much as possible and just play the parts. Christine likes it quite clean and precise. Her music is very sparse… everything is very clear, like the chords are clear, so everything we play has to be as clear as possible.”
Henry’s two EP’s to date, 2016’s 5ive [part of the Jazz Re:freshed series of introductory releases] and 2018’s Easter, were effective calling cards for his embrace of pop and jazz aesthetics. Indeed, he first attracted attention leading a trio that could be termed a ‘post-Glasper’ band. Henry’s broad musical culture is such that his keyboard of choice could be an Apple Mac, as much as it could be a Steinway. If that last release unveiled a rich palette of electronics, rapped and sung vocals and horns, then Henry’s debut album Beautiful Vinyl Hunter (Sony) also presents a shifting electro-acoustic sound canvas where the leader moves coherently between Rhodes and grand piano, finessing his arrangements with subtle undertows of digital noise and backbeats that reflect his immersion in anything from hip-hop and funk to the reggae rhythms that pertain to the 27-year-old Londoner’s Jamaican heritage. One of his early tracks, ‘St. Anne’, is a tribute to the town on the Caribbean island where his mother was born.
“I go to Jamaica a lot, and that played a big part of my musical development. Getting to actually experience where sound system culture really comes from and just be a sponge and soak all that up definitely had a massive effect on me. But generally I am just being completely honest with myself and opening myself up to all my influences, and the music I grew up listening to,” he says of the writing process for the album. “Never in my mind during the recording did I think I need this sound for that audience. It started with honesty and letting the music be a reflection of myself.”
On that road to self-fulfilment Henry has engaged with music scenes all over the UK. After showing an interest in the piano as a child he enrolled at the BRIT school and would later graduate from London’s Royal Academy of Music, but in between he studied at the renowned Leeds College Of Music. His time in the north of England proved decisive and led to meetings with local players, singers and rappers such as Sparkz who features on ‘Between The Lines’, a thought-provoking piece on Beautiful Vinyl Hunter that says much about the MC’s powers of perception and wordplay.
“When I was at college my flatmate was a producer for hip-hop group The Mouse Outfit, that’s based in Manchester,” says Henry before taking a sip of water. Even when seated his 6ft 6” frame is imposing. “We started making beats together and that eventually went into a lot of Mouse Outfit’s work. I got to do gigs with their MCs, like Sparkz, so yeah, it was natural to keep working with them when I got back to London. Manchester has a really cool scene. It’s got so many great artists. We developed that connection from then and I already knew in my mind before I recorded the beat for it that I was gonna have Sparkz on this particular track. I’ve listened to him so many times, I kind of know what works behind him sonically.
“I feel that I’ve experienced the greater scene in the north, as well as the great scene in London. For me, as a musician coming up in Leeds I was able to see so many great gigs… great musicians from the States who would come through, then there are all the musicians who are from the north, or based in the north, the Stuart McCallums and Luke Flowers, all those guys. So there was a really vibrant, happening scene and there are loads of venues up north like Hi-Fi and the Wardrobe that really supported up-and-coming music, which is why I think there’s such a strong band scene that came out of cities like Leeds. There are so many good creative bands from the north: Submotion Orchestra, Outlook Orchestra, Tommy Evans… the Haggis Horns, I mean there’s just a wide range of different bands in a place like Manchester that had a space to workshop their music and play it around the city. And students would go and support them, so it just created this momentum for you to keep making music, and it inspired other young musicians to start their own bands. There’s such an amazing vibe in places like Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. More attention should be paid to these places. The world is big, but small at the same time.”
And full of chance meetings. Many musicians who have pursued a career with any great intent usually reference to a meeting with a particular – mostly older – player as a turning point in their development. Henry’s father was a major influence in his life insofar as it was this non-professional musician who played Beethoven and Bach in the family home and arranged for lessons when he saw that the sound of the keyboard had caught Henry’s ear. As important as early classical training was, there was an unforeseen encounter at school that led Henry down the path to the jazz tradition. He and a classmate swapped mix-tapes, one of which had a version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’ by the highly respected British pianist Jason Rebello. “It turned out that another friend who was in my class happened to be Jason’s niece!” Henry explains with a beaming smile. “After discovering that I was like, ‘why didn’t you tell me Jason was your uncle?’ She didn’t really see it as a big thing because he’s just a family member who happened to be an amazing musician. She took me to a gig he was doing at Ronnie’s, we managed to connect and I started to study with him. “
As Henry looks to build on the momentum of the promising first stage of his career, lessons such as these are invaluable. Yet he is also aware of the bigger cultural picture in which jazz musicians of Jamaican descent such as himself fit into. Several of the greatest exponents of the art-form have a similar heritage to his own, and the unparalleled cultural dynamism of the islands gives him nothing but pride. “It’s no coincidence to me that some of the best jazz musicians come from the Caribbean – Sonny Rollins, Wynton Kelly… Roy Haynes,” says Henry. “And some of the founders of hip-hop are from the Caribbean too. It’s an honour for me to be able to carry the torch in my own way, just reflecting what I grew up listening to and also my surroundings and then documenting the music I make as honestly as I can do.”
Ashley Henry’s Beautiful Vinyl Hunter is out now on Sony Music
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!