Music sheet with one of the latest compositions titled “Covid-19” written by musician and composer Henry Darragh, 44, on Friday, July 31, 2020, in Houston.
Photo: Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
About two years ago, Henry Darragh found himself looking outward with his music. He’d hit on an idea that twisted together two styles of music with storied histories in Houston: big band and hip-hop. As Doc Loc and the Swangers, he and a big brass-filled ensemble worked up instrumental versions of songs like “25 Lighters” and “On My Block” while creating a big arrangement for “Sittin’ Sidewayz” with new vocal parts by Paul Wall and Big Pokey. The album was a love letter to the city and its music.
Now, during this time of quarantine, Darragh, like many of us, turned inward.
This week Darragh releases “What Can I Say” — a new recording that has him putting down the trombone and moving back to the piano.
“I loved doing that project, but I’m not just Doc Loc, I’m also Dr. Henry Darragh,” he says, laughing. “Different persona, but same person, of course. But the alter ego doesn’t show up as much with this one.”
Darragh calls it an EP, though at a half hour it’s more than amply long to create a mood. For a guy who did his doctoral thesis on Bill Evans, Darragh clearly enjoys working in the piano trio format with bassist David Craig and drummer Jerre Jackson that fits him like a custom suit.
Darragh wrote lyrics for four of the five songs, but decided to record them without words.
“I liked that it left nowhere to hide,” he says. “Nowhere, when you’re just playing melody the whole time, and improvising.”
Four of the five compositions are ballads, with one samba providing a little lift. “Grown-folk tempos,” he quips.
The tone is reflective and leans toward somber. “For Kellye” was written for Dallas jazz singer Kellye Gray, a friend who died of cancer in December.
“I just wrote it to help me negotiate the pain,” he says.
The bass and drums set a lovely, somber tone, allowing Darragh’s piano to dance throughout, a little bit of sprightly sound that lingers between loss and appreciation.
He says he wrote “What Can I Say” for his wife, a piece that unfolds beautifully over 10 minutes.
“For Stewart,” the samba, came about at the request of a friend, who wanted a composition inspired by him.
When the music industry shut down in March, another friend suggested Darragh write something during quarantine, which yielded “Covid 19.” Darragh says his composition tied to the pandemic found him “negotiating the same emotions as a love gone wrong song so it wasn’t that hard to write, but to play it proficiently required a lot of (work) with all those descending chords.”
Darragh deflects a lot of credit to Doug Robertson, who co-produced the album, as well as engineers Anthony Sapp and David Caceres. Darragh cites Caceres’ piano as his favorite in the city.
A sixth song, “My Best Day,” nearly made the cut. It’s a little older, and was mixed and mastered. But Darragh describes it as “a little swing-ier. But I’m not sure it worked with this more mellow, subdued, introspective joint.”
Since four of the five songs have lyrics, he’s pondering revisiting the compositions for a solo piano and vocal recording, which he says “is something I’ve never done.
“But I’ve also never released trio music until this one. But I’m happy with it, just this bare bones, totally exposed thing. It’s just me.”