Ashley Henry & the RE:ensemble – Easter EP
(Sony Music. CD review by Rob Mallows)
At what point does innovation become the mainstream?
British pianist Ashley Henry’s debut EP Easter – with major label Sony, no less – is trailed as an imaginative project, exploring new musical territory, fusing together jazz, hip-hop and R&B. Yet so commonplace now is the temptation for new artists and labels to use the hip-hop ‘vibe’ to bring in younger listeners, that one almost feels that this jazz-hip-hop hybrid sensibility is becoming the new ‘norm’ and, therefore, far from innovative.
Henry’s six-track EP is replete with achingly modern sounds, influences and moods, but – thankfully – it doesn’t feel like a desperate marketing ploy dressed up as a jazz album. No, this is a nice collection of punchy and peppy jazz and jazz-influenced cuts which shows the promise of a young artist finding his voice. A little rough around the edges – it offers perhaps too varied a selection, like an over-spiced cake – it nevertheless serves as a tasty hors d’oeuvre for a promised full studio album in the Spring.
A Londoner with Royal Academy Training (the RAM now producing jazz artists with the efficiency and speed of a Toyota production line), Henry has brought to this album a very personal mix of musical influences, from Abdullah Ibrahim to Margot Fonteyn(!) and Dreezy, a singer/rapper from Chicago. He has also assembled a great team for his debut: Luke Flowers and Eddie Hick on drums, Jean Toussaint on saxophone, James Copus on trumpet, Daniel Casimir on bass, and Cherise Adams-Burnett on vocals.
Opener Easter is an up-beat South London meets Copacabana vibe on which Henry’s piano playing (which brings to mind a young Jason Rebello at the height of the ‘new wave of British jazz’ in the early 1990s) is complemented by his strong vocal performance and frequent, almost Pentecostal-style interjections about the Easter season (making an early January launch an odd choice). It’s certainly the most stand-out, interesting track on the EP.
The World is Yours is a well-wrought trio adaptation of a Nas track, a little underwhelming compared with what went before but nevertheless charming in its simplicity and saved by a strong solo. Third track Pressure has Adams-Burnett on vocals giving a more soulful R&B vibe to a track by guitar pop band The Enemy, Henry’s piano playing taking second fiddle to Hick’s drums (with potent ride cymbal work) on a track which is nicely balanced, if lacking in anything suggesting much improvement on the original.
Bunny, track four, is a light-hearted, trippy sojourn, with a particularly nice bass line from Casimir and sufficient melodic treats hidden in the musical undergrowth to take it beyond the everyday. Fifth track St Anne’s (Remix) is where Henry’s jazz tyres really meets the hip-road road; the vocals of rapper ‘Mattic’ brought to mind Stanley Clarke’s collaboration with Q-Tip from the early 1990s. However, the jazz gets a little lost between the hard beats in the remix, making the track a little forgettable.
Final track Moving Forward is a better showcase for Henry’s undoubted piano-playing abilities which, while not yet distinct enough to make his sound instantly recognisable, shows he has good chops and an ear for a catchy improvisational shift.
Ashley Henry should certainly be filed under ‘one to watch’.