On the Side Stage at 2022’s Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, one of the most sought after boogie-woogie piano players in the world perches on his stool. All around the small stage, visitors shop, grab a bite or wait in line for a Hi Sign brew.
But Henri Herbert starts to play, there’s not an un-bobbing head or an un-tapping toe in the house.
Donning his signature leather jacket and matching black cowboy boots, Herbert hammers out “154 Boogie,” a rollicking tune from his album Boogie Woogie Piano. As his fingers blur up and down the keys, he’s a man transported. The Roland electric piano wobbles precariously over his knees as he demands sounds from it that few living pianists have the speed, skill or precision to pull from any instrument.
With closed eyes he plays — and suddenly that tiny stage seems much, much bigger.
Whether you share his devotion to the original American art form, as Herbert moves through his setlist — from energetic boogie classics like “Boogie Woogie Stomp” to blues ballads like “Long Distance Call” to originals like the title track of his new album — you can’t deny you’re in the presence of a master.
And Herbert has spent at least the requisite 10,000 hours at his craft. He began playing piano at 4 years old, and he hasn’t stopped since. After discovering boogie-woogie thanks to Jerry Lee Lewis, his passion grew under the influence of the great blues pianist Otis Spann and boogie-woogie legend Albert Ammons. Eventually, his calling became a career, and he played gigs around Europe, joining the Jim Jones Review in 2011, and eventually went solo in 2014.
A life so suffused with blues would inevitably lead him to its homeland. In 2019, the French-born, UK-raised Herbert pulled up stakes and laid roots in Austin, immersing himself fully in the city’s iconic music scene. And while he’s done some pretty fantastical things in his career — playing for the royal family of Monaco in Nice, France, performing at Bryan Adams’ Christmas party, and amassing more than 65 million YouTube views playing on a St. Pancras public piano —- the shows he plays around town and on Friday nights at C-boys Heart & Soul are his bread and butter. “This is my reality right here,” Herbert says with a chuckle.
And it’s a reality he hopes to carry on indefinitely. “I have my life here now,” he says.
With occasional tours around the States and Europe, a focus on regular local gigs has given Herbert plenty of time in the studio. Over the years, he’s recorded quite a catalog, with eight or nine albums (if you include those he hand-pressed in his youth) and enough material for a few more. His two most recent previous releases — Boogie Woogie Piano, Volumes 1 and 2 — are what he calls “occasional compilations,” a song recorded here and there, all put together on an album.
But Herbert’s latest release and first solo album, Boogie Till I Die, is a different kind of endeavor. Solo piano takes center stage, touching on the myriad varieties of boogie-woogie and blues.
When we last spoke to him in late 2021, Herbert was preparing to begin recording in Hawaii. After nearly a year in production, Boogie Till I Die was unleashed in September 2022.
Conceptually, Herbet’s approach to Boogie Till I Die was a nod to the way albums were made in decades past. “My favorite piano players made a selection of songs that they like, put them down and called it an album,” Herbert says. Taking his cue from the greats, Herbert followed suit. “It’s my favorite tunes on a record,” he says. “That’s all.”
The album is an 11-song collection of three Herbert originals — “Fast Boogie Woogie,” “Guitar Boogie,” and the title track — and eight reimagined classics from the genres he loves. “They’re songs I like — gospel numbers, jazz, boogie-woogie, blues,” Herbert says. “It’s all about different flavors.”
On the album, Herbert nimbly navigates the tightrope between past and future, honoring his musical roots while progressing the art-form. “I like trying to push it forward,” he says. “For me, it’s mainly about the groove, trying to find new ways to play that beat, new rhythms, and elements that haven’t been pushed forward.”
The album starts off with a frenetic blast in one of Herbert’s originals, “Boogie Till I Die.” He keeps the energy high with “Sixth Avenue Express,” a two-piano collaboration with keyboard legend Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, who Herbert met in 2016 at a piano festival in Cincinnati. “As soon as [Leavell] recorded, I realized he was absolutely the right guy for it,” Herbert says.
Herbert revisits that high energy throughout the album in songs like his own aptly named “Fast Boogie Woogie” and a reimagining of Ammons’ “Boogie Woogie Stomp.” But despite his flair for what can fairly be described as ecstatic, face-melting boogie-woogie piano riffs, Herbert doesn’t shy away from the slower stuff. His cover of “Sweet Lorraine” befits a saloon in the waning small hours. In the true spirit of the song, Herbert’s rendition of Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” is simultaneously somber and sanguine. And the album’s final track “Hard Times (no One Knows Better Than I)” is a salve for whatever ails the soul.
If Herbert’s goal is to “take boogie back to its roots but keep exploring.” as he says, his new album accomplishes that, showing his full range of feeling and finesse. Boogie Till I Die is something of a misnomer; Herbert doesn’t merely boogie — he serenades, captivates, intoxicates and plays on the precipice of the melody, threatening to lose control with stunningly perfect control.
Promo photos by Sean Murphy (courtesy of artist).