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Henry Hey: Learning From The Stranger Things

Mike Jacobs By

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I find the [piano] trio incredibly daunting because I feel a great responsibility making an acoustic record. That ground has been farmed over and over again by the greatest trios that have ever existed so you had better bring it if you are going to do one. —Henry Hey
Keyboardist Henry Hey's resume is an interesting read. In addition to a wide range of gigs and stints with some top name players in and around jazz, there's work in theater, TV and soundtracks. There's producing records as well as working in sessions with legendary producers. There's being a musical director for some of the biggest names in the pop and rock world. There's also a thing or two you probably couldn't have dreamed up but as Hey says, it was all very "educational." Add to this a solo album and genre-busting work with his own co-led bands Rudder and Forq and you might understand how Henry Hey is seen by many in-the-know as one of the most original and versatile talents in music today. All About Jazz spoke with him just before Thanksgiving 2019.

All About Jazz: So what are you up to?

Henry Hey: Just working on odds and ends around the house. Nice to be in New York for a minute and not be on a plane or running around.

AAJ: Does it slow down for you around the holidays or is it changeable?

HH: It varies all of the time. With the exception of touring, I don't really play gigs in New York that are affected by seasons so much. It happens to be busy now. Looks like January's going to be sort of busy. I don't know what February's going to be like. Maybe I'll be living on the street then...(laughs). That's kind of how it goes as a freelance musician. You look three months ahead and say, "Oh my God..." I have something five months ahead but three months ahead is a wasteland...

AAJ: Well you have a lot of experience in a lot of different areas, so at least there's that, right?

HH: Yeah. The truth is that I'm very lucky to enjoy doing a lot of different things and I'm lucky that people ask me to do a lot of different things. I have some freedom of choice so I'm the most fortunate guy there is.

AAJ: Well thanks for taking the time to talk. In preparing for this interview, I ran across some interesting chestnuts that you had posted quite a while ago on Youtube. There are few videos of people talking where you derived melodies from the note values of their speech and orchestrated it. That's a fascinating and relatively rare ability. Have you always been able to hear the melody in speech?

HH: I certainly didn't invent that. I had heard that on a Hermeto Pascoal record and I thought it was fascinating, the tone of speech. No, I didn't really have to work hard to hear those pitches. I started playing music by ear and with Suzuki Method. I also have perfect pitch so I hear there are notes and lines there.

AAJ: Well that's a good segue into your early years and formative influences. Where did you get the music bug and how did you get started?

HH: Well, my parents started me on classical piano when I was around five. I guess nobody really calls it classical piano at age five because you're basically just trying to find the notes but... as I said, I started with the Suzuki Method which is a lot of ear work. It's quite an aural method of learning along with written music but back then I was sort of cheating and listening to things and memorizing them. It made my ear really strong and my sight reading weak -I work on that a lot.

Then I got exposed to other music because my father's side of the family is quite musical -my uncle Jerry Hey being the most famous musician in the family. But my father was quite a good musician, playing low brass. He minored in music in college so I grew up in a house with music. I learned the basics of jazz and blues from my father. I started playing trumpet in sixth grade going all the way through high school in addition to piano. Eventually, when I got into college I let trumpet go because the instrument is slavery. You have to practice all the time. It's a beautiful and horrible instrument and I have the greatest respect for trumpet players because of the amount of work that it takes.

AAJ: Was there a moment for you where you knew that music was something you wanted to do as a vocation or did you always know?

HH: I didn't always know. In fact there was a time when I thought I wanted to be a pilot. In fact I'm still fascinated by aviation. I've been playing music so long that it's always been a part of my life. I will say though, there were moments in my musical upbringing where I was discovering new facets of music and they were quite a change for me.

I had been playing classical piano and I almost quit because I was bored with it. Then I started discovering jazz through trumpet, and then on piano. That was a whole new world for me, to play jazz and improvise on the piano. Then I started playing with other musicians and it was so much fun.

I grew up in Iowa and one of my peers was Ryan Kisor, the trumpet player. So Ryan and I had this little quintet and we would play this dumpy little bar in Sioux City. It was great and a huge formative time for me just soaking up, what was for me, a new language and new music. I went to [Jamey] Aebersold's camp and learned a lot from that. Then I went to [the University of] North Texas and I was opened up to all these peers who were playing music. I think that learning from my peers was the greatest experience for me. I know a lot of people who in their formative years had mentors but there weren't really any jazz mentors per se in my hometown—there wasn't enough of a jazz community there. There were a lot of classical musicians who were fantastic and were mentors, but my peers were really my mentors [in jazz].

When I went to Texas, there were a lot of musicians I listened to and played with and revered. It was very eye-opening just realizing the the world of music was ever-expanding and I became aware that there were really no limits on what music could be. I mean I had absorbed a lot of music on the radio and listened to rock and pop and new wave -I'm a kid of the 80's. I also listened to TV shows a lot.

AAJ: Well listening to you play in your current band FORQ, your penchant for quirky sounds—some very reminiscent of TV and cartoon themes— certainly comes through.

HH: Absolutely. That's not a coincidence.

AAJ: It's almost a signature.

HH: Well, yeah sure. I think that's fair and I'll own that. We all grew up with popular culture as a part of our soundtrack. I'm certainly someone of the television generation. MTV came into its own in my youth. Video games came into their own in my youth. That's all very much a part of this new record [Four]. I was definitely the kid who spent time in the arcade. In fact I have a vivid memory of going to see Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater and then going to the arcade next door. It was exactly like the show "Stranger Things" (laughs) except it was my youth.

AAJ: Getting back to your time at UNT, who was in your peer group?

HH: I went to school with people like Ari Hoenig, Keith Carlock, Brian Delaney, saxophonist Ben Kono, Art Hays. Shelley Carrol was around the scene and Brad Leali... a great trumpet player named Brad Turner, Jim White the drummer... Jon Button who plays with the Who now... Keith Carlock and I played a lot around Dallas in a cover & funk band called Dallas Brass and Electric. We also had our own stupid little fusion band that would play in the dorm. It was an environment that was quite rich with good musicians—especially drummers. I learned something important at that school about peers. That these relationships you make early on can last the rest of your life -for better or for worse -so you want to make them well.

AAJ: So after North Texas, what was you next step?

HH: Well, I went on a cruise ship for four months to save up some money and then I moved to New York.

AAJ: More than a few musicians have done that very thing.

HH: [Bassist] Tim Lefebvre did that too. Tim was on a cruise ship for a long time and basically wasn't going to move but [drummer] Zach Danziger came on the boat and basically told him, "You've gotta move to New York, you don't belong here on this cruise ship." (laughs)

But yeah, I had my sights set on New York. I thought about L.A. and of course my uncle being out there could have opened many doors for me. He made that overture but I wasn't feeling it. At the time L.A. was a place that didn't have that much live music happening. New York had a lot but L.A was holding onto the remnants of its recording scene. I saw there was a lot of work out there but I wasn't really moved by it.

AAJ: Coming out of the UNT program, would you have called yourself a jazz guy at that point?

HH: Not exclusively but yeah, I was a jazz guy and I wanted to play creative music. I wanted to play with live musicians in live settings and make it different every time. I didn't want to do what I saw people doing in L.A., which was basically sitting in a studio doing keyboard overdubs or playing for commercials or something. That just seemed incredibly stagnant and boring, even if it was well paid.

AAJ: So you chose New York. Did a lot of your peer group follow?

HH: When I moved to New York there were very few of my peers here. Brian Delaney and I toughed it out and made a go of it. Fortunately, I did make some connections with some people that I didn't know personally through some other North Texas peers. Bob Belden, rest in peace, recommended me to a company that was creating Japanese karaoke. (laughs) It sounds insane but...

AAJ: Especially in light of what you were just saying about the work in L.A....

HH: Yeah, I know but this was just a first job. Where most people move to New York and get a day job as a dishwasher or something, this was my day job. Bob Belden had asked me, "Can you program, can you sequence?" and I said, "Sure." So he set up the introduction and I met a Japanese guy who had an order from Japan to make massive amounts of MIDI karaoke. It was a new thing at the time and frankly terrible but they had a huge order... thousands of tunes. And it was all Japanese tunes at the time.

So Brian Delaney and I got the job together. I remember it was our third day in New York and we went to the Ed Sullivan Theater building where the office was and we had an interview with this guy and we showed him our stuff. We played him our demo on a DAT [tape] and we basically told him we could do anything. We couldn't really do anything that he asked, but we told him we could. So he said, "Ok, take this song home and program it." From there, we went to the music store and bought the software he was working with and read the manuals on the subway.

Sometimes these experiences, if they are really weird and really challenging, can be very educational. Transcribing karaoke and turning it into sequences taught me a ton about production. You had to spend all this time listening inside of parts, to the specifics of guitar, bass and keyboard parts to see how things fit. We transcribed song after song after song. And because it was for Japan, everything had to be exactly right. That includes metal songs with crazy guitar solos and bending. We had to recreate all that with synthesizers. So I learned a whole bunch from that gig and I paid my bills for over a year from that work.

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