Quietly spoken, laidback and amiable, Brooklyn-born and church-raised CORY HENRY exudes the relaxed demeanour and easy nonchalance of someone who’s supremely confident in his ability and knows what he wants to do in life as well as exactly where he’s going. Though prodigiously talented as a keyboard player – he started playing the organ in church at two years old and by the time he was six he was competing in Amateur Night at the legendary Apollo Theater – he hasn’t let his special gift go to his head and possesses a well-formed and disarming sense of humility. A core member of Grammy-winning jazz-funk-fusion group, SNARKY PUPPY, his CV includes sessions with everyone from P. Diddy, Yolanda Adams and Aretha Franklin to Kenny Garrett, Michael McDonald and Bruce Springsteen.
Recently, 29-year-old Henry released his third solo album, ‘The Revival’ via Ground UP. It was recorded live at the Greater Temple Of Praise in Brooklyn, the place of worship where Henry honed his chops on the Hammond organ as a youngster and finds the keyboard maven going back to his gospel roots with a largely solo organ recital. From a technical perspective, Henry’s pyrotechnics are awe-inspiring but, crucially, he music is highly emptive and infused with profound feeling. His repertoire, though, isn’t restricted to church music and includes songs by John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and The Beatles. “I’ve listened to all types of music my whole life – when I was in the house and even when I was going to the park,” says Henry, explaining his eclectic taste. “Once I listened to it, I figured I could play it on the organ. I think everybody’s influences come out in their music if they listen to them long enough.” He admits, though, that inspirational music – his sonic foundation stone – played a huge part in his musical development. “It’s very, very important. It gave me a chance to learn music in ways other people can’t,” he divulges. Indeed, some might imagine that the gospel environment could be musically restrictive one but young Henry’s interest in other forms of music was never curtailed or frowned upon. “I was afforded opportunities to play all different types of music at every church that I played for – and not a lot of people can say that,” he says with a tinge of pride in his voice.
In conversation with SJF’s Charles Waring ahead of his upcoming four-date tour of the UK, the keyboard player talks about different aspects of his life and music, including his role in Snarky Puppy and the formation of his own band, THE FUNK APOSTLES…
You’re coming over to the UK later this week.
Yeah, yeah, I can’t wait to get there. It’s going to be an awesome time and I’ve been thinking about it and practicing the organ the a little bit. It’s sounding good and I think it’s going to be cool.
Are you coming by yourself or are you going to bring some musicians along with you?
I’m going to bring Taron Lockett, the drummer from my band, The Funk Apostles. He’s been playing my ‘Revival’ music with me and is coming overseas as well to play.
What are you going to play?
My performance is based on the crowd that I see in front of me and emotions and feelings that I feel when they listen to any of my music. It’s not about music being specific or one thing. ‘The Revival’ project in totality , now that I look back at the project that just came out – and it’s doing well – I try to tell people all the time that ‘The Revival’ is about spontaneity. I like to change it up and keep it fresh for myself. I’ll play music from ‘The Revival’ and music from other records that I released and other things that I do.
What’s the story behind ‘The Revival.’ What inspired that album?
It first came from me wanting to sit on the organ for once and play some unplanned music. I don’t think I planned every song that I played that night but I wanted to plan the feeling behind every song that I played, which is just be honest about the music that I play. There’s no edit and it’s all there as it happened that night. And when you hear people screaming on the record, it’s not because they’re excited about songs that they know or lyrics that they respect, but it’s more so over the chance of me being able to play some music that they might never heard before, and no matter what they heard, they felt the same way. That’s big for me because music is a universal language and I like to communicate that language universally. Even though it’s not English, it’s not Spanish, it’s not gospel, it’s not jazz, it’s ‘The Revival,’ which is its own type of music that sounds its own type of way. And I had a chance to play in one of my favourite places. I grew up playing in church and I wanted to say that if I hadn’t done a gospel record specifically, then the one thing I can do is go in the church and record on my favourite instrument, which I played over 25 years. That was a very inspiring thing for myself and I’m glad that I got to do it and that the people got to hear it.
What memories did it bring back for you playing in The Greater Temple Of Praise in Brooklyn?
A lot of different memories. I thought about my mother when she showed me her first song, and then my grandmother. And then I thought about my father and his willingness to keep me around the music, even though he wasn’t a musician himself, but he taught me almost everything I know about sports. When I was making ‘The Revival,’ it made me think about all the Saturdays that I spent in church trying to play the organ and then being kicked out because it was time to go home and eat. (Laughs). I thought about all the things that I went through, but at that particular time nobody could kick me off the organ. It was like a marriage – a marriage to the organ.
What attracted you to the Hammond organ in the first place?
I don’t know. I just woke up one day and after watching my mother get ready for choir rehearsal and I happened to play a note after her and she finally realised that I wasn’t as crazy as I seemed and it was just about the music. Up to that point I was only beating on pots and pans. I just wanted to play organ. I started playing at the age of two.
Which organ players inspired you when you were growing up? Did you listen to a lot of other organ players?
No, I didn’t listen to that many on record because I was afforded a chance to be around a lot of organ players in Brooklyn, New York, which has a lot of them: Bishop Jeffrey Wright, he had a choir and an organ on top, Stanley Brown, Butch Heyward. Derek Jackson is one of my favourite organ players. I also listened to Billy Preston a lot and he’s my favourite organ player. I listen to a lot of different players that influenced me but I don’t just think about the organ. I listen to all music.
Aside from your solo career, you perform as a member of Snarky Puppy. What what’s it like performing as part of that band?
(Laughs). It’s just like any other part. Playing with Snarky Puppy is like playing in any other band that has a sound and rehearsals and good music. I was glad to be able to be afforded a chance to be in the group and play with them and make music. It’s been really cool, from day one till now. I wasn’t there from day one but I got in about five or six years ago when they were already a band and it’s been really nothing but love.
What’s the band’s leader, Michael League, like to work with?
Michael League is amazing, man. He’s a songwriter who had a vision to start this band in college so working with him is really cool because we agree on a lot of things, because we’ve been doing music a long time and sometimes when you start talking on stage or start going back and forth you get to see what you talk about and it makes music better. And knowing him, he’s a great guy, so working with him is even better.
How did you get to join the band in the first place?
I came on board because one of my big brothers from the church, he’s a native from Dallas, Texas, by the name of Robert Searight. I knew him for about 16 years and he produced people like Kirk Franklin and played drums for people like Snoop Dogg. He came to New York and gave me a call and told me to come to a show, because he started playing with the band before I did. He was playing keyboards with that band and was the only one that I knew besides Justin Stanton who also played keyboards with the band. He invited me to the show and I wanted to play drums but they didn’t invite me up (laughs). So when they came back a second time, he invited me back to the second show. He and Michael League had a conversation and invited me onto the stage and the rest is history.
Last year on Snarky’s Grammy-winning ‘Sylva’ album you performed with the Metropole Orkest. What was that experience like?
The greatest experience of my life. I’ve never done anything like that before so every time I think about it, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.
You’ve got another album out soon with your own band, The Funk Apostles. What can you tell me about them?
The Funk Apostles! Yeah. I can tell you everything about them. It’s my band and it’s my sound and it’s everything I like to do. I don’t think anyone else makes music that sounds like us. The record will be out hopefully by the end of this year. It’s a lot of new music that people haven’t heard before. The music ranges from Sly & The Family Stone to Earth, Wind & Fire to Prince and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. It’s just about everything that I love and respect about music. Hopefully people will like it just as much as ‘The Revival.’
I saw a YouTube clip of your band doing Prince’s ‘1999’ live last year.
Oh yeah, man. I didn’t want to do it just like Prince because I knew as a Prince fan that he didn’t like people covering his music but I am so in love that song, ‘1999’ – that was one of the first songs that The Funk Apostles played, which was an arrangement that I did of his song in which I wanted to totally flip the landscape of a cover song.
Do you know if he ever heard your version of ‘1999’?
He might have heard my version and I know that because my drummer, Taron Lockett, who am bringing to Europe, played with Prince and is now with Liv Warfield, who was one of Prince’s artists, so they could have been some possibility that he might have heard my version and probably cursed it out! (Laughs). He didn’t want nobody doing his music. Every time he found out, he told them about it.
Was Prince important to you musically?
Oh yeah, very important. Prince defines the sound of funk and as a Funk Apostle, you can’t deny him. He’s one of the funkiest guitar players to ever live and breathe. So when I come up with my guitar parts for my two guitar players, sometimes I tell them to go sound like Prince because we all love his music every day.
Who else is in the band alongside you?
I have six in my band. There are two drummers by the name of Cleon Edwards, who plays for Erykah Badu. The other drummer is Taron Lockett, who I just mentioned. The bass player, Sharay Reed from Chicago, plays for R. Kelly and Aretha Franklin, and on keyboards I have Nick Semrad who plays with Liv Warfield now and on guitars I have Adam Agarti, who plays with Marcus Miller, and Andrew Bailey.
Who else in the funk world do you look up to as an influence?
James Brown, who is probably top of all the artists in the funk world. Parliament/Funkadelic and the bass player, Bootsy Collins, and the keyboard player, Greg Phillinganes. Michael Jackson – he was funky – and Fela Kuti, even though he’s not in the pop-punk world, he still funky because his music came from a James Brown place. So those are some of the guys that I think about.
Looking into the future, what else do you see yourself doing?
Just more music. I hope The Funk Apostles will continue to make records. I have a lot of ideas of what I’d like to do and over time I want to do them all. I want to spend my life just making beautiful music because I feel good every time something good happens with the music, any type of music that I make. Where the music leads me, I’ll follow it.
CORY HENRY’S NEW ALBUM ‘THE REVIVAL’ IS OUT NOW VIA GROUND UP/UNIVERSAL.
SEE CORY LIVE IN THE UK:
14 May – Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds
16 May – St Philip’s Church, Salford
17 May – Union Chapel, London
18 May – Bristol Colton Hall (The Lantern)