The keyboard phenom talks tech and answers questions from KEYBOARD readers

“I have a really old iPhone and I refuse to get a new one,” acclaimed keyboardist Cory Henry tells me while attempting to troubleshoot our static-filled phone connection. From his work with funk/jazzers Snarky Puppy, to his soaring solo outings, Henry has risen to near rock star status, with sold-out concert appearances and an anticipated new album due out shortly. As he prepared to hit the road with his band The Funk Apostles, Henry spoke to Keyboard about the music and gear that continues to inspire him.

Why is it that you won’t buy a new iPhone?

I don’t really like the new features enough to want to upgrade. The iPhone X is literally as big as your face and you’re giving up all of these extra measures just to look cool, like face recognition. I don’t even think that’s a cool thing technically. The iPhone 6 is still a good size. It still fits in my pocket. I don’t got that “big old bulge.” So I’m not getting rid of this phone. I’m going to ride it till the wheels fall off!

Maybe there’s something to be said about not letting too much information fall into other people’s hands.

You got to see this episode of South Park where they do a very good job at depicting how we live our lives, in terms of just signing on to terms and agreements and not knowing what we’re giving up. That episode is funny as hell. We really do just go, “Yep, let me take that up,” just to use an app.

I read in an interview of yours from a while back where you cited Billy Preston, Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, and Oscar Peterson as some of your biggest influences.

Those are a few people I really take after and kind of make a melting pot from. The list goes on from there too.

I heard that when you were coming up, you really weren’t listening to that many organists because were playing in church and hearing organists every week.

Yeah. It wasn’t until later that I got into the “historic” part of the Hammond B3. Growing up in Brooklyn, there were so many amazing organ players at every church all playing their way— like my godfather, Bishop Jeffrey White and Butch Heyward, Stanley Brown, Melvin Crispell, Jerome Williams, James Hall - just so many cats in Brooklyn, New York, New Jersey and the Tri-State area. It was just like, “Wow.” There were a lot of organ players.

You just started taking it all in by osmosis at an early age?

I just grew up in a culture that was really heavily musically-influenced. Back in the day, gospel was like my school. It was like my college. There was so much ear training and “read and response” and reading the room. I learned from just being in it and doing it. I was feeling it and working it out as I got older.

Did you study formally in your early years?

Not really. I went to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music to get a little bit of reading under my belt and since then, I just met people along the way and started going to piano sessions and that kind of stuff. But I didn’t do much school.

There’s a famous video of you on YouTube playing organ around three years old. Is that when you first started playing music?

I was probably playing the organ around three, and I probably started playing music at two. We had a keyboard in the house, and my mother says that I had a deeper want to want to find the music voice. And then by the age of four was when I started playing in church about twice a month. There were all sorts of rehearsals and night services that were happening around that, so I was kind of on the organ a lot as a kid.

Were the older organists showing you some of their go-to registrations and “stops?” Or were you just trying to emulate them on your own?

I was doing more emulating on my own. They used to have concerts on Saturday and Sunday nights, and I think that was where you really got to see what was happening. I didn’t really take too many lessons or that type of thing. I’ll cite Bishop Jeffrey White as an influence because he was playing organ in a way that I really liked. I learned a lot from him growing up. And then from there just watching videos and just being around it and doing it on every Sunday. I was like, “I can just try to do it my way.”

Besides organ, were there other keyboards that were interesting you at that time?

When I was a young kid, it was all about the organ. I was just like, “This is it.” I loved to be able to play all the parts and in church it just seemed like it was, and it still is, a big thing. I loved the power of the instrument, and I wanted to play that as much as I could. I didn’t really like playing keyboards too much earlier, because I didn’t really get the same effect. The older cats would put their organ sound on something like the Korg M1 and I was like, “Oh, no!” I just wanted to play organ, like the actual organ. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I listened to Steve Wonder way more and Herbie and stuff like that. I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I kind of want to do that as well!”

Do you remember the your first keyboard you owned? 

The first keyboard I ever owned was a Yamaha DX7. Remember the “Belly” patch, man? We used to kill that thing! Another board I bought from Sam Ash when I was a teenager was the Roland XP-80. I thought that was “gold.” It still has some patches on there that I love.

Who did you look to when you were first getting involved with synths?

Chick and Herbie. I think those are the main sources. There were two records in particular that just really spoke to me. One was Herbie’s Sunlight record, and the other was Chick’s To the Stars record. I love that album. Also the album The Chick Corea Elektric Band with “Got a Match” on it. I love the pitch bending and the sound, even though that was like his ‘80s thing. I’m a huge analog dude, but I was really into his phrasing and sound. The same with Herbie on countless of records. And actually, Stevie Wonder too. Songs in the Key of Life is one of my favorite records of all time. I think that’s when I got introduced to Moog. That was like huge to me. And that stuff happened early for me and I was like, “Ok, I wanna try that out.”

What are you using these days in your live rig?

I’ve gone through four or five different setups with The Funk Apostles. Now I think I’m almost “bare bones.” I’m just playing Hammond, a Moog Sub 37, and my Harpejji. I’m really into this Harpejji thing. It’s a whole other beast. I don’t play that many keyboards because I’m trying to sing and Nick Semrad is playing all the keyboards.

What’s he using?

The Prophet Rev2 is his main piece. That thing is awesome. And he’s also been rocking the Yamaha Montage. He’s been taking these piano solos and that thing sounds awesome. He’s also using the little Yamaha Reface for clav on this last tour, which was pretty cool too.

So your rig is pretty minimal?

For me, I just really like playing Moog now. I always have, but now I’m just focusing on the one voice. I haven’t even been going crazy on lots of sounds. It’s just been like two to three and it sounds like a voice to me. The Sub37 is good. And I love the new reissue of the Model D. I love how the pitch bend on that thing goes back to zero. 

Speaking of organ, every year at NAMM there are videos of you playing the latest organ simulations. As a guy that came up playing the real thing in church, how impressed are you at what’s happening in that department?

That’s a tough one. It depends on the situation. There are a few that I’ve seen where I was like, “Ok, that’s cool.” But in terms of playing on the stage and doing what I do, nothing really beats the B3. A lot of people ask me about the videos from NAMM and I tell them, “I was just playing them and trying to check them out!” And you know, it’s so loud in those rooms because it’s NAMM, so you don’t really get to hear the instrument. So to be totally honest, I can’t really tell you if I like something or not. I just know that something’s not a B3 and I’m very old school when it comes down to that instrument.

The good news is pretty much anywhere in the world you can find a Hammond organ.

The thing is, you won’t find a good one. I’ve been having the toughest time now that I went back to this, We show up somewhere and there’s only one organ in the whole city, and it hasn’t been played in two years!

You have a B3 at home?

I have a Hammond CV at home right now. It’s smaller.

Your new single “Trade It All” has a great Wurlitzer solo with a delay. What made you go to the Wurly on that one?

Because I love the Wurlitzer. It’s one of my favorite things to play. I don’t call it on most gigs, but at home I love playing it. I play Wurly more than any other thing. It reminds me of the Hammond. I didn’t want to take an organ solo because it would have made it sound a little too gospel-y and that wasn’t the vibe.

You took a Moog solo on the live version of that song.

Yeah. I like it on the live version. But I wanted to do something different. The Wurly kind of put me in the Herbie state of mind for a little bit. And I was like, “I feel like I’m in the ‘70s.” I think it just matched the track very, very well.

A few of our readers wrote in with questions for you. The first is from keyboardist John Ginty, who plays with the Dixie Chicks. His question is, “What planet is he from?”

[Laughs.] What planet is he from?

Gregory Larson wrote in and said, “Off the top of your head, what are three keyboard solos or standout performances by other artists that you’d care to mention as having an influence on your playing?”

Oh man, that’s a good one. I love Herbie Hancock's “Trust Me” solo. Also Billy Preston’s "How Great Thou Art" YouTube video, Ray Charles’ Wurly playing on “I’ve Got a Woman,” and Chick Corea’s “Rumble” synth solo. Also, Oscar Peterson’s “Take the A Train” version in 6/8 is amazing. Those are a few that come to mind.

Mandy from Twitter asks, “Does he have any tips for pianists that are trying to transition styles? I’m mostly doing classical but I want to get more into jazz.”

You’ve got to go to jazz clubs and get some jazz records and transcribe some solos. Listen to it. Become engulfed into the music if she’s really trying to transition, because the worlds are way apart.

Another reader asks, “Do you have any not widely known but great song recommendations?”

One of my favorite songs is the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” I love that song and the changes in it. It’s just nice music. The same thing about Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” I just love playing those changes. And the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” I just love that damn song so much. Every time I play it, it just sounds like it needs to be in “The Real Book” or something like that. The A and B sections are so damn strong— there’s so much in there.

Well there’s a lot of strong stuff on your new record. It feels like what the world needs now, which is some joy, some danceable grooves and some keyboard solos!

I do appreciate that. I hope people like it. And we’re going to get in the studio and work up some more and not take as long to release it.

Your new album is an amalgam of funk, jazz and soul. Is this what you’ve been after? To lead a band with your own sound and vision?

Absolutely, since I was a kid. I used to have a gospel group when I was a teenager. That lasted a short time. Then I tried to do something after that and then tried to do something after that. I’ve been always wanting to find a way to do my thing. And now that The Funk Apostles have come together - we’ve been together now for three years—it’s just like a lifelong dream. Every night is like a bubbling up of joy that happens no matter what we’re playing. It just feels so good to be out there. The guys are so into what we’re doing and we’re doing it together. So it’s affecting people, and that makes me really, really happy. It’s absolutely what I always wanted to do.

For more information visit https://www.coryhenrymusic.com