‘Live at the Piano,’ Cory Henry’s Timeless Approach to Performance and Collection Coalesce for an Hour of Escape
Evan Dale // July 12, 2023
It can be difficult to distinguish between the realms of revivalism and the ancient, ongoing. We each exist in our own plane in time and place, and thusly often confound breaks in creation as ends and beginnings. As a viewer, a listener, it can be easy to make that mistake with art and music in particular when a creator comes along with a project, a style, or a sound that feels altogether like something born from another era - renewed - but is perhaps better represented by the word continued. Artists pick up - with their own vision and gusto, of course - where others left off. Inspiration bleeds from one generation to the next, fueling an ongoing evolution, that at times feels like a revival, or even rarely, a revolution. And Cory Henry - since long before his 2016 live album, aptly titled The Revival, cast his long shadow across the sphere of contemporary, live, improvisational composition in an era of overproduced, digital, online music - thrives at that very crossroads of revival and continuation; of whether his work is new life for an art form or simply the extension of its life.
But does that matter? No. Cory Henry’s music would be celebrated then just as it is now. He dabbles in the timelessness of jazz and soul with keystrokes at the center of his orbit. His is ultimately a contribution - a continuation - to an undying art form, kept omnipresent by the rare names like his own.
The Brooklyn-born organist, pianist, vocalist, lyricism, composer, producer, and all-around machiavellian musician whose mosaic of sound transcends jazz, soul, rock, gospel, and beyond, is again making us question our place in space-time and what it says about musical style as a bridge, or instead as multiple related, yet different destinations. The May release of his new project, aptly titled, too, Live At The Piano, is exactly what it sounds like, although in a way that feels tethered closely to a moment where such undertakings were more common, than our current undercurrent of jazz ripplings in a larger sea of less transcendent, and certainly less instrumentally focused sonic creativity.
It’s rare enough these days to be so wholesale connected to analogue instrumentation. It’s rarer still to make an album out of it. But to release an entire live album, full enough of the emotion and energy that drives performance, yet that is listenable whilst in any room, is a dying art, revived again - or perhaps simply continued forward - by way of Cory Henry’s Live At The Piano.
From its onset - Testimony - where tumbling keys and the tail ends of conversation still dying out at the candlelit dinner tables of the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, where the album was recorded during Cory henry’s residency, now guide a listener into the front door of the project at large - its live elements feel especially lively. Opening with a subtle joke about the grays in his beard, Live At The Piano, becomes an intimate hour with one of this generation’s most daring, defiant, and electric musicians, who certainly knows how to work a room.
But it’s his ability to have that performative nuance transcend into the recorded and digestible medium that it is, that makes Live At The Piano a triumph of the modern live album. It doesn’t feel like a set jammed into a streaming platform. Instead, it feels as intentional, yet as flighty and unpredictable as any of his other jazz-club collections, owing testament to his consistency and steadfast understanding of composition in both live and recorded spaces.
In the little moments, Cory Henry escapes the bounds of his hyper-intelligencia and compositional mystique to become simply the guy at the piano, handily, emotionally breaking down the keys, like in the waning moments of Dreaming Of. His vocal prowess, organic and vulnerable, is also on display in a way that only the album’s live recording - in particular on a track like Icarus - could capture. And the amalgamation of the two, where Cory Henry dynamically traverses his sung voice and his dexterity - and all the little imperfections that make it feel so connective - all the while bleeding with creative fire as he improvises and stretches, he finds his sweet spot, and yet still doesn’t feel off-track in a manner that would be challenging for a recorded listener. Instead - as in Our Affairs - he tightropes his dynamism for a crowd much larger than the audience at the Blue Note, balancing the charm of the live recording with the self-awareness of it.
Truly, that’s the story of Live At The Piano at large. Not just a guy at the piano, but the legend that is Cory Henry, weaving the timeless dynamism of a live jazz album into the reality of a streaming world, reviving - or continuing - a tradition that may seem rarer theses days, but has never been on firmer footing than here, and now.
And just because the live album can only ever get you so close, the man at the piano is also headed out on tour, Live (and in person) At The Piano. So make sure to keep an eye out on what is sure to be an intimate and transformative evening near you.