Henry Cole: Avoiding Predictable Grooves


Henry Cole has released the sprawling new album Buscando La Vida.

(Photo: Pipo Exe)

When drummer Henry Cole recruited rapper Negro González to appear on “De Frente,” an outcry of an offering on Cole’s sprawling new album, Buscando La Vida, he expected González — a fellow native of the Villa Locura section of Añasco, Puerto Rico — to hit the ground running.

“I told him, ‘Negro, there’s no time for building up,’” an animated Cole recalled in a November Zoom call from Madrid, where he had just finished a tour with saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s band. “‘I want you, from the beginning to the end, on fire!’”

And that is how González proceeded — delivering the kind of compelling rap that the title, which translates to “Head On,” suggests.

The irony is that the fiery urgency Cole, 42, communicated to González — and that is present, from simmer to full flame, throughout Buscando La Vida — can be traced to an actual fire that, in September 2018, consumed Cole’s Manhattan apartment. The blaze precipitated a move back to Puerto Rico, where, on home turf after 15 years in New York, he found the impetus to produce the album.

The album opens on a slow burn with “No Estamos Solos” (“We Are Not Alone”) — a lush, classically minded piece that integrates 10 members of his Villa Locura band, recorded in Puerto Rico, with the Metropole Orkest, recorded in the Netherlands. The orchestra session found Cole on a 4 a.m. video conference with the musicians, marking the end of a long struggle to organize and record with a full complement of horns and strings.

“When they started playing, I started crying,” he recalled.

As with the opener, pulling together the component parts of the closer, “Vueltas” (“Turns”), proved no mean feat. Drawing on the textures of the Mississippi Delta and the rhythms of West Africa, it features a chorus set against the stylings of U.K.-born, Nigeria-bred singer Duke Amayo, who recorded his part in Atlanta. The vocal parts had begun with Cole singing in the shower — and nearly ended there as he despaired about finding a lead singer with the sensitivity to grasp, and the pipes to improve on, what he was doing in those waterlogged moments.

“It was a hard match to find someone like that,” he said. But, he was able to do so with Amayo, whose interpretation captures the complexity of Cole’s aesthetic, weaving the spirit of his other band, the Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat Collective, into the Villa Locura mix.

The album’s other tracks are a varied lot, often sharing a retrospective bent. At eight-and-a-half minutes, “Y En Sueños Te Persigo” (“And In Dreams I Chase You”) is a fevered journey fashioned around a trippy solo by guitarist Giovanny De La Rosa that harkens back to Cole’s days as a self-described rock ’n’ roll kid. At barely a minute, “H.C.S.” is a cheeky remembrance of an absent father (Henry Cole Simon), backgrounded by a chirpy clap-a-thon realized with Logic software.

Cole’s voice may echo that of his native island, but across the album’s eight tracks — recorded in December 2020 amid the turbulence of the pandemic and his personal travails — it emerges as grand synthesis of ever-shifting sounds that, in their refusal to settle into a predictable groove, befit the tumult of the time.

“Sometimes it’s chaotic,” Michael Brauer, who mixed the album, said in a tone of admiration tempered by caution.

Brauer, who has mixed everyone from the Rolling Stones to the latest Brazilian bands, asserted that the multitude of influences in Cole’s sound — and the intensity of his commitment to it — made his music difficult to place: “Where in Billboard am I going to see this record? They come up with all these categories — which one is Henry going to be played in?”

After mixing Cole’s unreleased album Simple, recorded in 2018 at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, Brauer brought the music to legendary record producer Carlos Alomar. Cole, recalling a subsequent conversation with Alomar, wrote in an email: “I remember he said the album sounded ‘too real,’ that it needed more processing, etcetera. But the ‘real’ aspect was what I was trying to showcase.”

The tracks on Simple were real enough to use as application documents for a Chamber Music America grant he won before the pandemic hit. He has already released singles from the album and hopes to release the full collection on his label, La Música Artesanal. Meanwhile, he is forging ahead, admittedly stuck in a marketing “limbo.”

“Nowadays, it’s all about the playlist, and no one knows on what playlist to put this music,” he said. “But I can’t do anything but keep doing the work.” DB

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April 2023
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