An Interview with Ashley Henry

Photo of Ashley Henry

Two years ago, we set out on a journey to capture the spirit of London and pay homage to the materials, forms, and techniques which involved centuries of innovation in one of the world's greatest cities.

In doing so, we quickly realised that it isn’t enough to simply reflect the past. That legends are only born when you take what has come before you, living it, breathing it, before re-engineering it to express something new about the world as you know it.

And so we’ve developed four timeless frames which hark back to the simple elegance and handcrafted artisanship of the past while embodying the rich, innovative spirit of London today. Fittingly, we call them Legends.  

Learn more about Ashley Henrey, the inspiration behind the Ash frame.

Tell us about yourself, your background, what you’re up to.

I’m a jazz musician and composer from South East London. I come from a Caribbean background and discovered jazz after studying classical piano growing up alongside learning popular songs by ear. At the moment I’m
currently touring with my own project “Ashley Henry & The Re: ensemble”, The Outlook Orchestra, and Christine and the Queens.

What are some of the forces which have influenced your approach to making music, or your work in general?

One of the main forces behind it all is being a part of the jazz scene in London and having the opportunity to be surrounded by so many talented musicians/artists- being around that energy definitely pushes you and keeps me inspired. I’ve also had the opportunity to perform/tour with older and more
experienced musicians from the UK and the USA who have taught me a lot about how to be a band leader and how to take care of business (Jean Toussaint, Terrence Blanchard, Keyon Harrold to name a few). Having any form of mentorship in the jazz world in the UK is very rare so I definitely don’t take
it for granted! I’d say those are the main forces behind my approach, most of it comes from inspiration.

Who have been influential people in your musical career and how have they influenced the way you approach writing, composing or performing?

When I first started to study Jazz piano, I was taken under the wing from one of my favourite Jazz pianists/composers, Jason Rebello. I actually decided I wanted to be a jazz musician after hearing his album “Make it Real” for the first time! Jason is a world-class musician and has taught me so much about connection to my instrument, studying the vernacular of jazz in depth and shared so much good advice and wisdom towards performance.

Another huge influence for me is the multi-award winning trumpeter Terrence Blanchard. Terrence is one of my favourite American improvisers and composers. I did a tour with him the same year I graduated from the royal Academy of music a few years ago, he was very encouraging and being able to perform with him every day and really get inside of his compositions/arrangements - it opened so
many doors for me musically. He’s also a great film composer so I got to pick his brain about his approach to film composition and arranging. It’s so inspiring to be able to learn from some of the best to ever do it!

What do feel you’ve gained by studying the tradition, the history and the greats of the artform? What does that bring to your work that wouldn’t be there otherwise?

I think that in any art form if you don’t study the history of it, you’ll lack a deeper understanding...

Especially in Jazz, there’s so many aspects of it that’s been developed and recycled over the years since the 1930’s such as harmony, melody, rhythm, interaction etc. So even though my music is very modern and reflects what’s going on right now, my music would sound quite empty as if there’s something
missing had I have not studied the tradition of jazz.

When you’re writing, recording or performing, how does the study of the past come to life in what you do?

When I’m writing, I take inspiration from some of my favourite jazz artists/composers from the 40’s/50’s/60’s such as Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter – a lot of their work was written during that period but
they were so ahead of their time that people are still listening and playing their music today - So I like to mix that together with contemporary music I’m currently into.

Recording and performing, one big thing for me that I definitely take from studying the past is the ability to tell stories. I think that’s one of the most important qualities to keep working towards as an instrumentalist.

How do you reconcile your relationship with music’s history with the desire to create something which speaks to your own time, place or culture? Are tradition and innovation mutually exclusive?

To be honest I don’t really like calling a certain type of music “Tradition”, It’s all just timeless music to me. Good music that resonates. Only the other month John Coltrane’s lost album scored a top 20 album in the UK charts! In my eyes, a lot of those guys were just reflecting the society they were in at the time, and obviously things were a lot different back then to how things are now so the music is going to sound different! I can only take inspiration from my favourite artists from the past and use that alongside music from my era that I’m into, my culture, environment and my personal life experiences to tell my own story in a musical context.

Describe your relationship with London? What’s great about it, what’s challenging about it? How do you balance these?

I was born and raised in London. I didn’t realise how intense and amazing London was until I moved away and lived in Leeds for 3 years for University. I love how multicultural it is, how huge it is in comparison to other cities, the nightlife etc. I’d say that London can be quite claustrophobic at times,
especially in the city where everyone’s on a mission! It also takes a lot longer to get from A to B than it does in many other cities, which can take it out of you. When I started to travel the world a lot more I realised that it’s important to get away from London for a little break sometimes to recharge the batteries. It’s all about balance.

What makes London a great place to be creative?

London is one of the biggest melting pots for talent in any field! You can meet someone new every single day and they’re truly amazing at what they do! And that pushes you to be better at your craft. I know a lot of talented people that were the big fish in their hometown, but when they moved to London it just blew their mind!

Especially for the arts, it keeps the scene healthy.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it special to you or the people around you?

When I first fell in love with Jazz, I never forgot the feeling that it gave me. And that it STILL gives me! I do what I do because I want to share that feeling with as many people as possible – I believe that the love needs to be passed on and shared, especially the times we’re living in right now. And when I meet people that have come to my shows or listened to my music (jazz fans or not) and express to me how much they enjoy my music, that inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing and keep making more music.

Tell us about anything you’re working on now or anything you have coming up!

I have an album coming out early next year on Sony UK/Masterworks with some new tracks dropping before that! Really excited about this project as it features some very special guests.

I’m about to do a world tour with Christine and the Queens, which kicks off October 11th. We’ll be in Europe, North America, Canada, UK and France.
After the world tour with Christine and the Queens I’ll also be heading to the US playing my own music in January at the Winter Jazz Festival in New York and the Blue Note all-star Cruise alongside the likes of Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Marcus Miller etc.

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