Organist Transcends Genre

Mohit Dubey

Last Saturday evening at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, gospel organist Cory Henry from the band Snarky Puppy shook a crowd of about 50 showgoers with soul-shivering sounds. Henry’s budding notoriety may be accredited to his masterful five-minute solo “Lingus,” off of the band’s most recent album We Like It Here; however, Henry’s talent exceeds this single claim to fame. Henry, who also plays piano and Rhodes, fuses his parochial sound with elements of dubstep and trap music, incorporating what College first-year Cody Edgerly, who attended Saturday’s show, described as “previously unmixed genres of gospel, jazz, hip-hop and electronic noise.” Henry’s accompanying band, The Funk Apostles, contributed to this unique sound.

Henry’s deep connection to music was born out of his upbringing in the Church of God in Christ Unity Temple, where he first began playing the organ at age two. The documentary Gotcha Now, available on YouTube, narrates his musical journey and his immersion in Brooklyn’s jazz and gospel scene. Henry credits his early kinship with the organ to listening to a lot of music. “It wasn’t as much hands-on, where somebody was telling me what to play,” Henry said between performances. “I was just blessed to be in the right place at the right time.” He also praised his mother, herself a multi-instrumentalist, for shaping his musical career and introducing him to New York’s gospel community. The documentary is full of home videos of a young Henry shredding the organ and adorably responding to questions. When asked where he would like to play as an adult — the church or the world — a prepubescent Henry responded “the wooooorld.” From the sounds of Henry’s most recent album, First Steps, and the spiritual vibe of his live shows, he appears to be bridging the spiritual and secular worlds.

In the documentary, Henry discussed how musicians like Chick Corea and Glen Gould influenced him to “level up his chops” in order to expand upon what other gospel musicians in his direct vicinity were doing. Perhaps his versatility is what inspired multiple Oberlin musicians to show up on Saturday to see his approach to music making. College first-year Amal Ghulam, who spontaneously decided to attend the show after being convinced by friends in the Jazz department, said she was “surprised by the dynamics and grooves” in Henry’s music. Charles Ryan, a double-degree first-year student also in attendance, said he was awestruck by Henry’s ability to “take something so pure and put a little dirt on it to make a whole new sound and feeling.” Ryan was also impressed at the quality of Henry’s live performance, as compared to his recently released album Gotcha Now Doc, which is more restrained compared to traditional gospel style.

With Snarky Puppy coming to Oberlin in a few weeks, Punch Brothers in residence and a hoard of talented musical students, Oberlin is never short on great live shows. Still the campus misses out on gems like Henry, who only passed through Cleveland and Akron. The students who attended Henry’s show spent multiple days planning rides and almost cancelled the trip due to icy roads and thick fog. Both Ryan and Ghulam agree that Oberlin could do more to make live music outside of Oberlin accessible to students. “Exposure is the best thing,” said Ghulam. “The College should encourage students to participate more in seeing shows in the city to experience music in different environments, not just Finney, Warner and the ’Sco.”