An audience with Mr Ashley Henry

As Audi launches the new Q8, Mr Porter meets a man who knows how to make an entrance.

In London’s basement bars, a jazz revival is in full swing. Exploding in north and south London, the polarities of the movement, a new generation of artists are drawing energy from broken beat, R&B, and hip-hop to create a sound that reaches far beyond its traditional parameters. At the centre of this renaissance is Mr Ashley Henry, pianist and founder of jazz collective The RE: Ensemble – a group of UK-based musicians cleverly reinventing groove-jazz.

Born in Crystal Palace, south-east London, he’s always been fully immersed in music. “My dad played the piano, so we always had music playing throughout the house. Whenever he got home he’d open up a classical book and play some Bach or Beethoven. I was about four when I first wanted to play.” Now 26, Mr Henry has toured internationally and collaborated with both New York saxophonist Mr Jean Toussaint and the legendary New Orleans-raised trumpeter Mr Terence Blanchard, which he describes as, “one of the biggest turning points of my career”. In 2017, he was commissioned as guest resident musical director for both The Jazz Café, London, and Ronnie Scott’s.

Classically trained, Mr Henry is a relative newcomer to jazz, which makes his ascent in the industry even more impressive. He was 17 when when a chance encounter with jazz artist Mr Jason Rebello made him realise that he wanted to make the switch over to piano’s more soulful side. “I knew nothing about it at the time, but was just so inspired that I didn’t even stop to think about where this journey would eventually take me – or the things that I would achieve. The decision was a huge risk for me because I was pretty much putting something I’ve been playing and studying my whole life by the wayside to pursue something completely new.”

Mr Henry was lucky enough to be taught by Mr Rebello, before studying at The University of Leeds where he graduated under the prestigious Yamaha Jazz scholarship. It was there that Mr Henry developed his distinctive sound, which is best described as fast-fingered with a lightening quick harmonic response. Yet similarly to the work of one of his avowed influences, Mr Herbie Hancock, there’s a deep commitment to groove and an exact placement of each note that ensures everything he plays has the kind of authentic up-beat, up-tempo, high-energy swing; Jazz amplified to its euphoric best.

The influence of hip-hop is one of the most striking elements of Mr Henry’s music. “Growing up in south London really opened my eyes to different types of music. At the time, there was a radio station called Choice FM, which was for the black community in London. You’d always hear the newest hip-hop and R&B. Mixing jazz with it kind of happened organically because I grew up listening to that stuff. When I started to compose it just came out naturally. I guess it’d be dishonest if you were to turn away from your influences.”

It’s this wonderful reworking and effortless fusing together of different disciplines into something uniquely whole that helped sign him to music platform Jazz Re:freshed. In turn, this put him on the radar of pop artists such as French singer-songwriter Christine and the Queens, who he’ll he be touring with internationally from October this year. “That was insane. Her manager emailed my manager and said ‘we want Ashley Henry’, so they took me to their gig to hang out. That was back in May, but I’ve been rehearsing with her for the past few months and it’s going to be an amazing show.”