Cory Henry on the timeless messages of music

Cory Henry is a Grammy Award-winning composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and all-around keyboard master.

Henry began touring in 2006, when he was 19 years old, and he has since hit the road with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Michael McDonald, P. Diddy, Boyz II Men, Kenny Garrett, The Roots and many more. He won three Grammy Awards as a member of Snarky Puppy before leaving the group in 2018 to launch a solo career that’s been highly successful itself.

Over the last two years, Henry was able to grow his audience exponentially with the release of three independent projects: Something to Say, Christmas With You and Best of Me. Throughout each album, his positive and motivating songs and lyrics have sought to unify listeners through one of the most difficult times in recent history.

Ahead of his performance at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on Saturday, July 2, Henry joined us to talk about those projects and the music and messages that speak to him.

How does it feel to be back out on the road after a couple of years of downtime — or was it downtime?

It feels incredible. It wasn’t so much downtime for me, personally, but it feels incredible to be back outside playing in front of audiences across the world. It feels like people are really hungry for music again. It’s been some years since we’ve played in Canada.

You’ve been quite busy recording solo albums. What did you find out about yourself throughout that process? Your music is really positive and it tends to unify the listeners. I’m curious where that energy comes from and how it translated throughout the last couple of years.

It’s several things for me. First is that I found out that I really love recording. I haven’t spent this much time in a studio probably ever. During the pandemic, I spent 10 to 12 hours a day, if not more, getting in the studio, finding sounds, taking my time with production, editing, so many things. In terms of the music, I’ve always been in this positive state of mind where I’m trying to stand on the shoulders of some of my favourite artists that ever lived — people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince and James Brown, to name a few. All of those guys had messages. As much as I listened to their music, it’s amazing to see how some of those messages still ring true today. During the pandemic, there were so many things happening — as there are now — that inspired me to go into the studio and talk about the things that I see as a Black man living in this world today. I wanted to talk about those things, and I want to see everybody come together. Some of the best feelings that I can remember in this life all have a sense of unity, love and peace. That’s what music is about. I hope that my music can do that even more.

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You started touring when you were 19 with the great Kenny Garrett, and your experience has been wide and varied. Not just in jazz, but you hang out in the gospel world, funk, R&B. In your musical language, is there a dialect or an accent that you prefer over any other? What is it that speaks to you?

No, I’m just gravitating toward good music. I think that genre is secondary. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of quite a few different genres during my career, but the thing that gets me moving the most is just being surrounded by good music, good musicians and good people. The more I’m able to do that, the happier I am. It’s been crazy during this pandemic, I’ve been going crazy with the collaborations and productions. With all of those things, I’ve been fortunate enough to keep surrounding myself with good projects. I grew up playing gospel music, so gospel is at the heart of everything I do. So, if I had to pick one, it would be gospel.

You have your own home studio, I’d imagine. Are you a bit of a gearhead? Do you collect vintage keyboards?

Absolutely. I have tons of them. That’s not going to stop anytime soon.

Do you have a DX7?

Man, the DX7 was the first keyboard I ever had! But I don’t have one in my collection right now, so I might have to go get one.

Do you prefer the organ or the piano?

They’re very different, but if I had to pick one, it would be the organ. I can get all the sounds I need out of the organ.

Who do you have with you on this tour?

I’ve got the Apostles with me. TaRon Lockett on the drums, Nick Semrad on the keyboard, Josh Easley on the bass, Matia Celeste singing with me, and Tamara Jade singing with me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.