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Ashley Henry: The Beauty Of Inclusive Music

Ashley Henry: The Beauty Of Inclusive Music

Courtesy Letizia Gigliutti


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From very early on, I could see that music could bring people so much joy, even during times of precarity.
—Ashley Henry
Pianist and composer Ashley Henry is one of the most interesting talents coming out of the British Jazz scene, which has been commanding growing international recognition. His debut album Beautiful Vinyl Hunter (Universal, 2019) revealed a universe in which grime, r&b and hip-hop coexist with the respect and recognition for the great jazz players of the past.

Raised in South-East London amid Afro-Caribbean rhythms and records by Stevie Wonder, Prince and Marvin Gaye, graduated in Jazz Music from Leeds Conservatory while at the same time pursuing his love for the music of Chopin and Debussy, Ashley Henry is the epitome of inclusiveness in music. We interviewed him on the occasion of his participation in the Ricci Weekender Festival.

All About Jazz: How influential were your Afro-Caribbean roots in your artistic development?

Ashley Henry: My Afro Caribbean roots are very important to my artistry. They have given me a unique sense of rhythm and melody which has completely shaped my approach to music. Most importantly, an understanding of how music is supposed to make you feel was drilled into me from an early age. Growing up, my dad and his friends had their own sound system, so my parents would host loads of house parties throughout my childhood. From very early on, I could see that music could bring people so much joy, even during times of precarity. The more I got into jazz I realised that a lot of my favourite jazz musicians, especially those I admired for their uniqueness and originality also came from a Caribbean background, such as Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Oscar Peterson, as well as UK jazz legends such as Courtney Pine and Joe Harriott.

AAJ: When did you start embracing the study of the piano in jazz music?

AH: I started studying classical piano when I was about 5, and was also playing along to pop, r&b, and soul records by ear. I didn't get exposed to jazz til I was about 18, when a friend of mine started showing me jazz records—I never looked back from that point on!

AAJ: By the way, I read that you have a keyboard that you care a lot about ...

AH: I have many! But I was probably talking about my Nord keyboard that I did the Christine and the Queens and Loyle Carner tours with.

AAJ: Are there other art forms that have influenced your growth as a musician?

AH: Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou are some of my favourite poets. Their writing really articulates and uplifts the aesthetics of Black music and culture. I have been a really great admirer of painters such as Frank Bowling, whose work has moved and inspired me. I love to read, and recently have been learning a lot from writers including Fred Moten, Bell Hooks, and Saidiya Hartman. All of their ideas and thoughts transport me, and allow me to open myself up creatively.

AAJ: Beautiful Vinyl Hunter is a record in which different influences and genres come to the fore. Do you think that jazz is no longer that prerogative of a narrow group of listeners?

AH: Jazz has definitely become more inclusive, because it has become more expansive. Although jazz has always been, and will always be changing, I believe we are in a moment mirroring the 1960's, when musicians like Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra began to radicalize the music by turning to its African origins, and in doing so, really opening it up, and allowing for genre-bending, and boundary-blurring. I feel like a similar movement is taking place now with the multitude of genres and iterations of Black music such as hip-hop, grime, broken-beat etc. In Beautiful Vinyl Hunter I wanted to explore both the diversity and the connections between different genres of Black music.

AAJ: The song "Mighty" recalls the ancestral sounds of South Africa. How close do you feel to that musical tradition?

AH: Recalling ancestral sounds was my original intention with "The Mighty." Going to South Africa in 2016 and hearing all the music that was coming out of there definitely put me on that journey! Africa is the source of all Black music and I wanted to try and connect the dots through my perspective, as an African growing up in South London.

AAJ: How did you conceive and record that album?

AH: I recorded the album in a very short space of time but I've either toured or spent a lot of time with everyone on the record... so there was already a mutual understanding and a connection with every musician involved. When it came to bringing my compositions to life, everything fell into place because we all understood each other's musicianship. The compositions were all ideas I came up with whilst on tour and travelling. They reflect experiences I was having, and who I was as a musician at that moment in time.

AAJ: How did the collaborations with the US musicians on the album come to be?

AH: The American collaborations happened very organically. Before I recorded my album I was already touring with Keyon Harrold, Theo Croker and playing on the scene with Judi Jackson. I recorded "Dark Honey" with Makaya McCraven and Jaimie Branch at an event called Chicago x London that was held in London and featured musicians from the London and Chicago jazz scenes. We recorded "Dark Honey" then alongside Makaya's album Universal Beings [International Anthem Recording Co., 2018].

AAJ: What does self-producing the debut album entail in terms of choices and goals?

AH: Self-producing has really taught me to have trust in the process and in my vision. Everything that is in my album compositionally, I envisioned first.

AAJ: What do the new generations of American and British musicians have in common?

AH: I think we are all going through very similar experiences as young artists right now— not just in the UK and America, but really around the world. There is so much to reflect on, and speak out about, and I guess that connects us.

AAJ: There's a new wave of talented musicians in the London scene: what makes you unique among them?

AH: I'm probably one of the only musicians on the UK Jazz scene that didn't come through Tomorrow's Warriors or any other Youth Jazz programme, so my style and approach is different.

AAJ: Is it difficult today for young jazz musicians to establish themselves in the music scene?

AH: I don't feel that things are more difficult now that venues are open again and jam sessions are back on. Online platforms have become just as relevant as jam sessions in relation to musicians networking and collaborating etc. But in my opinion, nothing beats real life human interaction, especially with music.

AAJ: What projects are you working on at the moment?

AH: I have been working on my second album, which I'm excited to share with everyone soon! I have my UK tour in November, tickets for which are now available. I will be dropping a few singles later this year, so stay tuned for those! Outside of releasing music, I am working on scoring a documentary called Black v/s Private School, and curating and hosting collaborative music events in London.

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