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Cory Henry at Woodlands Tavern March 7th

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by Richard Sanford on March 1, 2016

Keyboardist Cory Henry returns to Columbus for something a little bit different at Woodlands Tavern on Monday, March 7th (tickets available here). In the last few years, we’ve been lucky enough to host both Snarky Puppy, the contemporary jazzy-R&B monster Henry’s a vital part of who just won their second Grammy this February, and his own gorgeously unpredictable soulful funk party band Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles several times. But this solo tour, “The Revival Project,” promoting a live record, The Revival out on March 18th, finds him getting back to his hardcore organ roots. Keep reading for more thoughts on Henry and the record, including videos.

Cory Henry’s keyboard tone was one of the first things I keyed to when I heard Snarky Puppy and it wasn’t long before I discovered his work with jazz heavyweights like tenor player Kenny Garrett and fellow pianist Robert Glasper and his hip-hop work with Nas and the Roots, not to mention gospel legends like Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams. His taste level is off the charts – at any moment, whether comping behind a soloist or leading a hurricane of sound with 10+ pieces on stage, this unflappable keyboardist knows exactly what the moment needs and comes at the moment in a way that’s surprising and always right. 

I’ve talked in this space before about Winter Jazzfest in NYC, connected to the American Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference, a multi-day marathon of where the jazz scene (mostly in New York but encompassing acts farther afield) is and where it’s headed. I’ve been twice and it’s gloriously exhausting. It’s also physically impossible to see everything and one of the shows this year I heard most about was Henry’s Revival Project (who played as a trio with Nathaniel Townsley and Burniss Earl Travis). People I talked to that weekend who were in the Judson Church for Henry’s performance lost their minds, which made me excited to hear the record. Now that I’ve heard the record, I’m incredibly excited for Monday’s show.

The Revival, recorded at Brooklyn’s Greater Temple of Praise, features fellow Brooklynite, drummer James Williams, on a few tracks, and Bishop Jeffrey Wright (Henry’s Godfather) on a stirring “Old Rugged Cross” but is largely solo and rests entirely on Henry’s shoulders. Leaving his usual keyboard rig behind, he focuses on the Hammond B-3 for a raw, stripped down sound and a reminder of how the whole world can fit in that spinning Leslie speaker. Gospel suffuses everything here as well as a sensual connection to the instrument, which Cory began playing at two.

“I Want to Be Ready,” my favorite track with Williams, takes an undulating, serpentine groove and rides it for everything it’s worth, shouting through his organ, playing lines off one another in a way that’s virtuosic but not showy, building drama with a tension and release that should be the envy of almost any other organ player working today. This sweat-soaked performance gives weight to both the faith and the fear of not being good enough in that gospel classic; by the time Henry returns to the melody, all high notes and light, at the end of its 11+ minute run time, the listener is the best kind of wrung out. “He Has Made Me Glad (I Will Enter His Gates)” is a three dimensional look at that kind of soul-filling gladness, the way someone prepares for it and the way sometimes no preparation is enough, a wild surprise is around every turn here.

Some of my favorite moments on The Revival are lower-key. The moody, whispery “All in Love is Fair” builds using silence, almost torturously slow at first, turning into a cri de coeur with heart-stopping pedaling and subtle shards of cymbal work from Williams. My favorite ballad I’ve heard so far this year and I hope he does it live because, while some people have an issue with ballads in a rock club, I bet it will bring the house down. “Precious Lord” builds through a series of swaggering explosions, in a saloon tempo that brought me to the edge of my seat.

In a world full of great B-3 players, I can’t think of anyone playing this particular stripe of organ in so exciting, vibrant, and alive a manner. This has the potential to be the kind of show that reminds music fans why we go out on a Monday and make us all glad we did.

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