Henry Hey: Learning From The Stranger Things

Mike Jacobs By

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AAJ: Did that job take up most of your time?

HH: No, the crazy thing is, because they had all these people already working there and because we were the new young guys, we said, "We'll work any time you want." They had these little work stations in cubicles set up in their offices. My friend called it "the karaoke sweatshop." So Brian and I would go hang out and hear music at night till one in the morning. Then we'd go to the Ed Sullivan Theater building and work the rest of the night. I mean, we were in our mid-twenties, paying the bills and doing New York. Sleeping in the morning, getting up in the afternoon and playing music with people, then doing it all over again.

This was about '94, and New York in '94 was definitely rougher. Back then, well... If you look down Broadway now, it looks like Disney—like daytime at night— everything is fantastic and sparkly and polished. I'll never forget, when we came out at 53rd st on our third day and looked down Broadway, the marquee on a nearby theater said: "Tight Anal Rampage..." (laughs)

AAJ: So what was your first playing gig in New York?

HH: The first steady gig I got was with Blood Sweat and Tears. The only remnant of the original band was David Clayton Thomas and (pause)... let's just say he was a challenging individual. I worked with them for about four months and got fired—because everybody got fired from that gig. I played a gig or two with Chuck Loeb, a really great guy who's unfortunately no longer with us. Then Chuck recommended me to Bill Evans, the saxophonist and we toured Brazil, Europe and Japan. I played with Bill for several years and had the opportunity to play with some great players like Rocky Bryant, Lionel Cordew, Nicky Moroch, Dean Brown, Victor Bailey -it was a great experience.

AAJ: There are some other interesting things on your sideman resume. You played with Bill Bruford's Earthworks Underground Orchestra.

HH: Yes, a few different things that led up to that. I had been playing a weekly gig with Joe Locke, the vibraphonist, at a now defunct coffeehouse in Soho called Kavahaz. They served relatively terrible coffee and food that was not great, but they had a stage and Joe had developed a weekly thing there. Mike Pope was the regular bassist on that gig. So I ended up playing with Joe a lot and then, through co-producing a couple of Joe's records, I was introduced to [drummer] Jeff "Tain" Watts.

I played on Jeff's Bar Talk (Columbia, 2002) record and I started touring with his quartet, which was exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because he's an incredible musician, but terrifying—because he's an incredible musician (laughs). He generates so much energy and the music can be so complex but he's also so giving. If you're lost —and if you're familiar with Jeff's music, you can understand how you might get lost—he'll throw you a lifeline. He doesn't leave people out to dry. He's so welcoming and inclusive with his bandleading also. The happiest feeling for me on that gig was to know that he was happy and didn't feel like he had to throw me a lifeline. If we were playing some very complicated vamp and he could be free soloing over it, then I knew I was doing the right thing. He's a wonderful musician and a wonderful person.

So anyway, I had been working with Joe Locke and we went to Europe and I met Tim Garland, who had been working with Bill Bruford. Tim asked me to play piano in his big band for some concerts in New York and then after that he asked me to play piano in the touring Bruford [Earthworks] project, which came to the U.S.

AAJ: Why didn't they use their regular Earthworks line up on the U.S. tour?

HH: Simple answer... money. Visas and flights. So Bill brought Tim who was essentially musical director and there was me and Mike Pope and we did quartet gigs.

AAJ: And out of that came the Earthworks Underground Orchestra record?

HH: That was a big band and all of the added musicians [to the quartet] were New York musicians. They were all people Tim knew from his collaborations with Chick Corea and elsewhere.

AAJ: So how long did you do the sideman thing?

HH: A good while, but in the '90s, I had also started a band with Tim Lefebvre, Chris Cheek and Adrian Harpham. We gigged around the Bleecker Street scene—which kind of no longer exists. There used to be a kind of blues scene around Bleecker Street and a bunch of great musicians came out of that, including Joan Osborne and some musicians who are associated with big acts. But anyway, we had this band that gigged around that scene for a while, and then we stopped for a few years. But when Keith Carlock came to town, we started it up again with him on drums and that band later became Rudder.

AAJ: So the seeds for Rudder were planted in the 90's. Sound-wise and style-wise, there's almost a direct line that can be drawn from Rudder to your current band FORQ -modern grooves, synths, electric, etc. Yet your 2003 debut as a leader, Watershed (Nineteen Eight, 2003) is a classic piano trio record. Would you say that album was a detour for you or do they both just represent different facets of your musical persona?

HH: I think they are both me and I still might make another trio record. I find the trio incredibly daunting because I feel a great responsibility making an acoustic trio 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. To me, the concept is the most important part so I labored and suffered trying to compose for that trio. If I do another trio record, I'm sure the process will be the same. I didn't continue with that [piano trio] at that time because I felt it would have been nearly impossible to take on the road. And I felt that a record without a live presence behind it would not get that much attention. That's not to say that I don't identify with that style of music or composition but with Rudder there were more players involved. I felt like I could write better for that and be a little freer about concept and collaborate more. My trio record was just me writing and Rudder was all of us leading and writing.

AAJ: So right about the time of your solo debut and Rudder beginning to happen, you got the musical director gig with Rod Stewart when he was doing the Great American Songbook (Sony Music, 2002), right?

HH: That's right. I had been playing a bunch of jazz gigs in New York. Then almost on a fluke, I get this message on my phone from this [music] contractor I had been working with. She said, (imitating nonchalantly) "Oh, I was just wondering if you could do these television dates with Rod Stewart, but you have to do them all." And then she rattled off all these dates and I'm thinking, "Do you have the right number?" (laughs). It turned out to be good. We went off and did this promo and a video performance. The video performance was sort of un-steered and Rod was leaning on me heavily to lead him through these loose piano intros. I was kind of nodding because no one was really directing him and that generated some trust. Then he asked me to be musical director for the Great American Songbook project.

AAJ: Did that open a lot of doors for you?

HH: It did as far as putting my name on the map but that kind of gig doesn't really generate other gigs the way people might think it does. It's not like all of a sudden I was getting calls from all of the pop stars to play.

AAJ: But later you did get the call to be musical director for George Michael.

HH: The gig with George Michael came through Phil Ramone. I had been working with Phil Ramone peripherally on a recording or two. I wasn't really a known quantity to him but once I started doing more of Rod's stuff, then I was. He produced some of the tracks on the Great American Songbook That's when I formed a relationship with Phil. I started doing demos with him and he would come to my apartment and work. So we were working on an Australian film and he asked me if I wanted to be involved in this George Michael project. Then Phil put me forward to be the musical director and George was fine with it.

AAJ: While we're on the subject of working with big names, talk about your time working with David Bowie. How did that come about?

HH: That came out of working with [Bowie producer] Tony Visconti on a Lucy Woodward record. I had been been playing with Lucy for years. She brought me in [to the session] as part of her band and I hit it off with Tony. He and I then worked on another record and then later he reached out to me one spring and said, "There's something happening in April. Are you around?" and I said yes. He said "Just hold these dates. You won't want to miss this." That turned out to be David Bowie's record The Next Day. My first session for Bowie was playing piano on the song "Where Are We Now."

AAJ: Bowie kept those last few projects of his tightly under wraps. What was that like?

HH: The Next Day was actually the biggest secret but it was done to maximize the impact of the release and not have people asking about it all of the time. It didn't have anything to do with his health because he was in perfect health at the time. We had to keep that record secret for a year and a half.

AAJ: Were you successful at keeping it a secret?

HH: Yeah. The Next Day was a big shock when it came out and was pretty successful. But after that first session, I hit it off with David and he asked me to come back and do more keyboard stuff. I did a total of about four sessions and we started developing a rapport. Then his business manager called me and said, "Can you come by the office? I want to talk to you about something." I went in and that's when he told me about the theater piece [Lazarus]. He said, "David's working on a theater piece and he thinks you are the only one to do the arrangements and orchestrations." Of course before finishing the sentence, my answer was "Yes." I wanted to be involved in anything he was doing.

AAJ: Was it a big learning curve for you, doing a musical?

HH: There was some learning involved because I didn't have much, if any, theater experience specifically but I feel lucky that I did have experience in some related avenues of work. I had done a lot of scoring for pictures and events. I had also done a good bit of arranging and orchestration work. And also musical directing, which is basically coordinating people to achieve a certain sound. I had done that for both jazz and pop musicians. So I felt like I could draw on a lot of these experiences to handle it.



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