Born in South London, Ashley Henry is a pianist and composer at the forefront of the new era of young Jazz musicians currently making waves across the UK and beyond. His pedigree is undeniable, having recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, Ashley has collaborated with legendary artists such as Jean Touissant and performed with the likes of Robert Glasper, playing with depth and subtlety that belie his 24 years. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at this year’s Love Supreme Festival to talk his musical journey, influences and discover his favourite release of the summer…
Ashley, we wanted to start with your musical influences. You mentioned in your set your love for ‘The Enemy’, could you talk us through the music you listened to growing up?
For one I grew up in a really musical family, classically trained on the piano, but then used to watch a load of MTV and The Box back in the day. I used to go and buy CDs with what little money I had, and by the time I was in my teens I had this massive collection of random stuff, from Rock to Gangster-Rap, to Golden-era Hip-Hop. I didn’t really look at music as specific things – it’s just music.
At what point did that turn into Jazz for you?
I got into Jazz a lot later, just after College around 18 or 19.
In terms of Jazz influences, who else is there for you?
Wow, I could talk about that all day, but I can shortlist it for you. Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, so many names! I like a lot of artists that are switching it up as well, you know the [Robert] Glaspers and Christian Scott, those who are mixing different elements of music into the Jazz. It’s a great time to be a musician right now.
There’s something quite special happening with Jazz at the minute in London, personified by Jazz:Refreshed, a label I know you know quite well. Could you talk us through how that relationship came about and where you’d like to see it go?
In terms of recording the record, it happened when I was offered a last-minute slot when they had a cancellation. I used to go to a few gigs that they used to run, and I got talking to the guys, who told me they’d have me down, at some point… Then I got an email asking me to do this date, which I did. This was just after Manchester Jazz Festival, which was recorded, and got quite a lot of airplay, on Jamie Cullum’s show for example. They then asked me if I was heading to the studio at all and if I wanted to release it with them. There are some amazing records being released on there right now, and before my record too.
You are Guest Musical Director at the Jazz Café. Could you tell us what this involves?
It’s cool. One thing that I have a thing for is putting together a group of musicians who I know will work together well. If I get asked to curate an ensemble, even if I don’t play in it myself, it’s great to be able to take people from different corners of the London scene, putting them together and getting them to make music.
What’s the production that you are most happy with?
Wow. The first major thing I did was the Milestone Series, which I curated at the Jazz Café. Getting Ezra Collective to do ‘Time Out’ by Dave Brubeck, with an afrobeat spin, was really cool. Cleveland Watkiss did a Dizzy Gillespian Bird thing, and so many different working bands covering iconic jazz albums but making it their own and relevant. That was a really cool thing to be a part of.
You’re also part of the Outlook Festival Orchestra. What’s it like to go from playing Ronnie Scotts, to being part of an orchestra that is more rooted in bass culture?
Going through that gig was mad. It was like having a DJ pulling out all the classics that I remember from back in the day. I loved playing music that I grew up listening to, with all those artists singing on those tunes. I love it. Growing up with that music means that it’s not really a transition, I’m just playing more music.
What else can we expect from you this summer?
I’m at Helsinki Festival in Finland for three days with the Trio, if anyone happens to be passing through. I’ll be at Outlook Festival, and with the Orchestra in Bristol for a special gig. We’ve got a few more dates coming up – summer’s looking good!
Finally, favourite record of the summer?
Drunk by Thundercat. I saw him at Glastonbury and he just tore it up.