LJF 2019: Ashley Henry

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As mid-November temperatures dropped across the UK, the cavernous hall of EartH Hackney didn’t provide much extra warmth. But with a full-capacity audience of 750 people filing in to see London pianist Ashley Henry, things were about to heat up.

In a live performance clashing with the televised election debate, the 26-year-old was touring music from his recent Sony debut album, Beautiful Vinyl Hunter. Released in September, it’s an ambitious project bringing together a myriad of artists from the UK and US jazz scenes. Done live, it would surely match the excitement of Boris Johnson debating Jeremy Corbyn, which was broadcast live on ITV from a neon sci-fi battle stage.

Henry was on after two sets of support acts. The band of producer and bassist Ben Marc delivered mellow electric jazz driven by synth and Rhodes and then singer Sans Soucis soothed the audience with romantic neo-soul and catchy pop. One all-too-familiar issue did present itself at this point: the sheer size of the space meant that some of the clarity of these performances was lost. At times, for example, it was difficult to discern the sound of Marcus Joseph’s saxophone amongst the overall reverb of Ben Marc’s band.

This problem, however, was wholly forgotten when it came to the main event. Ashley Henry dazzled from the opening with a trio number – Sunrise – from his recent album, alongside Fergus Ireland on double bass and Daniel John on drums. Balancing powerful hammered chords with delicate tinkling and improvisations, Henry’s playing on both piano and Rhodes keyboards was sophisticated and delightfully nuanced. And against a backdrop of broken-beat and hip-hop rhythms, it was a well-proven formula.

Before long he was introducing his roster of guest musicians – vocalists and instrumentalists alike – to which there seemed no foreseeable end. Between tracks, light-hearted anecdotes were shared with the audience and the phrase “I’m going to introduce a special guest” became a sort of mantra throughout the gig. But special they were. Sheila Maurice-Grey – of Kokoroko and SEED Ensemble to name a few projects – brought a cutting Afrobeat edge, and the piercing, soulful vocals of singers such as Randolph Matthews and Judi Jackson cut through the room (the sharpness of their singing matched only by their outfits). Hip-hop MC Sparkz arrived for Between The Lines, a fan favourite on Beautiful Vinyl Hunter, and Johsua Idehen’s politically charged spoken work could not be better timed.

Through all this Henry’s playing never faltered, just as the audience never tired of it. Speaking with warmth and humility, he emphasised the value of homegrown talent and of his own journey as an artist. As a younger musician it was his dream to play in Ronnie Scott’s, but EartH Hackney is something else entirely. “I’d never thought I’d fill a hall this big”, he said, looking over his enamoured audience. But Ashley Henry might be one of the best young jazz pianists on the London jazz scene today, and surely that crowd of 750 people would happily confirm it.

Ashley Henry, EartH Hackney, London, 19 November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival