Cory Henry had been hailed as one of the finest organ players of his generation. He won Grammys playing the Hammond B3 with an acclaimed jazz and funk ensemble and then went solo.
But he knew from his days leading his church in worship that he could connect deeper with an audience.
Henry wanted to be more than a respected instrumentalist. He wanted to become a singer.
“Something kind of snapped,” Henry said by phone while on tour in Virginia. “I wanted to be able to communicate better to another level. There is something about the lyrics. There is something about the voice. People listen to it and respond differently. It draws people closer.”
Over the last few years, Henry pieced together a new band, The Funk Apostles, and recorded his first album as a vocalist and a keyboard player. “The Art of Love” was released earlier this year and features a range of funk, soul and jazz tunes that evoke the styles of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. While his influences are clear, Henry has a style all his own.
Henry was born into music. His mother led the choir at the family’s Pentecostal church in Brooklyn, New York, and played several instruments.
One day, as a 3-year-old, Henry began playing the keyboard while his mother was singing, tapping out the notes that mimicked her vocals. Then she taught him “Amazing Grace.” He started playing in church soon after.
“It was a gift — a gift from God, I should say,” Henry said.
At 6, Henry played the Apollo Theater, and by 19 he was a touring jazz musician. He won two Grammy awards with the jazz-funk band Snarky Puppy before going solo.
Henry recorded an album of instrumental jazz, “First Steps,” and a live album of gospel, “Revival.” On “Revival,” he sings the infectious, joyful “NaNaNa” as a call and response with the crowd.
He had always been a singer in church — but never before in the secular world.
“I didn’t think that my voice would be able to transfer outside of church because singing in church is a very specific type of singing,” he said.
However, Henry wanted a new challenge.
“I get a lot of joy ... I probably get as much joy — if not more joy — from singing than playing,” Henry said. “I think I’m a singer these days.”
On “Art of Love,” that joy is audible. On “Our Affairs,” a driving bass line underscores a soulful melody where Henry drifts into falsetto. “You put me through hell when heaven’s where true love resides,” he sings before vocalizing along with his organ.
Writing is usually a structured process that sometimes finds Henry co-writing with a band member. One song, “Send Me a Sign,” came to him almost fully formed while practicing the organ early one morning.
“I can’t look back no more,” he sings over an exuberant organ riff on the song. “I go to the door and before I do once more, I need to be sure. Lord, send me a sign.”
“It came out of a feeling I was having at the moment,” Henry said. “It came out of nowhere. I wrote that song in minutes. Then once I got it to the band, I was happy the song actually made sense.”
The song could easily slot into Henry’s set as an encore. In the spoken word section of the bridge on the studio album, Henry thanks the audience for listening.
“The shows, every night, they are different,” Henry said. “It’s a different experience. We play the music from the ‘Art of Love’ every night, and we play that differently. We try to keep it very fresh and new, and we try to cook it up for the crowd. We play what we think they want to hear that night.”
Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles
8 p.m. Thursday
Varsity Theatre, 3353 Highland Road
$20 general; $79 meet and greet