‘Easter’ Review \\ Ashley Henry and the RE:Ensemble cut the safety ropes on revealing EP

Pianist and composer Ashley Henry is an artist whose consciousness is tied by Caribbean heritage, a South London upbringing and artistic circumstances. This mindfulness and poise enables Henry to deliver an EP of clarity and conviction with Easter, his major label debut and enticing precursor to the debut studio album expected this Spring.

Opening with the title track, Easter immediately locks into a Latin-American groove. Initiated by Henry and bassist Daniel Casimir’s introductory interplay it’s promptly reinforced with lush bossa nova vocals. Following successive lead play from Henry and trumpeter James Copus, a momentary rest heralds the arrival of American saxophonist Jean Toussaint. He tears into a solo of blistering intensity, seeming to stretch throughout the delivery of British/Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph’s cool and evocative verses. It’s an exhilarating introduction to the EP, putting to bed any notions of major label curtailment, should they exist prior to the listening experience.

The World is Yours reveals a lot about Henry, both as a performer and music fan. The origins of the composition lie with Ahmad Jamal, a pianist whose songbook has provided the repertoire for past Ashley Henry trio concerts, including the 1970 track I Love Music; That was the track sampled by Pete Rock, principal producer of the 1994 Nas joint from which Henry’s track derives its name. Henry’s arrangement serves as a dedication to that entire lineage. Beginning in a distinctly hip-hop style, Casimir’s repetitive string bass phrase calls to mind those sampled by A Tribe Called Quest on The Low End Theory, whilst Hick’s fizzy hat and tart snare sounds alike to those on grooves laid down by Questlove over numerous hip-hop and R&B masterworks in the years. Midway through the composition and Henry has chewed threw his safety ropes completely, unleashing some mean arpeggios that halt periodically to refer back to the famous sampled chord progression. A passage of subtle solo piano ushers into that famous, isolated piano sample, structurally referencing its appearance within Jamal’s original composition. Such considerate moves are what make Henry’s work on this record so impressive.

The ensemble do well to match the energy level of the aforementioned tracks on the final two thirds of the EP. Pressure is an almost unrecognisable flip of The Enemy’s indie rock track, elevated by Cherise Adams-Burnett’s effortless vocal performance. Eddie Hick’s beats on the track are worthy of note, giving it the kind of energy and immediacy that made the debut album of now-defunct duo Yussef Kamaal so engaging.

Bunny, despite its breezy disposition and less eventful arrangement, still packs a punch. St Anne Remix, a bonafide jazz-hop cut with subbier bass and crunchy components, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Homeboy Sandman LP. Though the choice of a highly tuned, potentially piccolo snare drum on final cut Moving Forward may not be too all tastes, it doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable trio piece, although one that could certainly have benefitted from a larger ensemble presence, bringing the EP to a more emphatic conclusion.

Therein lies a hint towards the possibilities of Ashley Henry’s future. Comparable not only to Randy Weston in stature, Henry writes and performs wonderfully lyrical piano-led music and draws from the rich musical and wider cultural histories of Africa and the Caribbean. Henry too could arrange for large ensemble, perhaps not one like that which appears on Weston’s Blue Moses, but one assembled for the modern era, for Greater London and the wider world. Should that not be his personal calling, he’s a fine trio and Re:ensemble leader all the same. 

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EZH | Joshua French