by Ian Mann
May 20, 2019
Ian Mann enjoys the music but laments the small audience turn out as he offers his own perspective on the current tour by trumpeter and composer Henry Lowther's Still Waters quintet.
Henry Lowther’s Still Waters, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 19/05/2019.
Henry Lowther – trumpet & flugelhorn, Pete Hurt – tenor saxophone, Barry Green – piano,
Dave Green – double bass, Jon Scott – drums.
Tonight’s event was part of an extensive tour by the long running Still Waters quintet led by trumpeter and composer Henry Lowther.
The group’s Reading date in April 2019 was covered by my co-writer Trevor Bannister but I so enjoyed the quintet’s most recent album release, 2018’s “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe”, that I felt compelled to see the band perform the music live myself and to offer my own perspective on it.
Trevor’s account of the Reading performance, which featured Paul Clarvis in the drum chair, can be read here;
Meanwhile my review of the “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe” album is here;
The following paragraphs, containing some of Lowther’s biographical details and my personal recollections of his music making, have been lifted directly from that review in a cut and paste process that I like to refer to as ‘Jazz Will Eat Itself’.
“Born in Leicester in 1941 trumpeter, violinist and composer Henry Lowther is one of the great unsung heroes of British music. In his childhood he played cornet with Salvation Army and colliery bands while also learning classical violin at the behest of his mother.
On leaving school Lowther moved to London to study classical violin at the Royal Academy of Music but soon abandoned this to embrace the vibrant jazz and rock scene of the capital with the trumpet now his principal instrument.
The prolific Lowther worked with anybody and everybody including Manfred Mann, John Mayall and Cream bassist Jack Bruce. In 1969 he appeared at the famous Woodstock festival as part of drummer Keef Hartley’s band.
Inspired by the Indo-Jazz experimentations of violinist John Mayer Lowther began to embrace jazz more wholeheartedly and began lengthy associations with the bands led by saxophonist John Dankworth, pianist Mike Westbrook and trombonist and composer Mike Gibbs, the last of these still ongoing.
Lowther was an in demand session musician at this time appearing on many pop and rock albums. He even led a ‘horn section for a hire’ that went by the cheeky moniker of Tower of Lowther. I seem to recall first hearing his playing on classic prog rock albums like Egg’s “The Polite Force” and Caravan’s “For Girls Who grow Plump In The Night”. He’s played with rather more famous names too including George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bryan Ferry and Van Morrison.
In the intervening years Lowther has become more associated with jazz and is particularly well known for his work with large ensembles, including bands led by Mike Gibbs, Graham Collier, Michael Garrick, George Russell, Gil Evans, Hermeto Pascoal, Scott Stroman, Kenny Wheeler, Frank Griffith and others. He has performed regularly with the BBC Concert Orchestra and was once a member of the jazz big band led by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
In recent years I’ve enjoyed witnessing performances by Lowther as a member of bands led by Gibbs and Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra and the most recent edition of the Dedication Orchestra. In 2017 he was part of the jazz orchestra that toured the UK under the leadership of reeds player and composer Julian Siegel.
Lowther has been a professional musician for over fifty years and thus it’s practically impossible to list all of his achievements. His current activities include writing and playing for the London Jazz Orchestra, performing with guitarist Jim Mullen’s Great Wee Band and experimenting with free improvisation as part of a trio with violinist Satuko Fukada and guitarist John Russell.
All this in addition to his to his long running quintet Still Waters, a group that serves as an outlet for Lowther’s small group writing. Incredibly it’s been over twenty years since the group’s 1997 début “I.D.” which appeared on drummer Paul Clarvis’ Village Life imprint – as does this long awaited follow up.
I remember buying a copy of “I.D.” back in the day and I still love the album, as did many others for it was very well received. The 1997 edition of Still Waters included Lowther and Clarvis plus bassist Dave Green, saxophonist Julian Arguelles and pianist Pete Saberton. The album included seven Lowther original compositions, a version of the Rodgers & Hart song “It Never Entered My Mind” and a stunningly beautiful Arguelles arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “In The Bleak Midwinter”, my favourite piece of Christmas music.
Despite the hiatus between recordings the band has continued to be active and I recall enjoying a set by the quintet at the 2008 Brecon Festival featuring Lowther, Clarvis, Green and Saberton with Pete Hurt replacing Arguelles on saxophone.
I also remember seeing Lowther play a standards gig with a local rhythm section led by Abergavenny based drummer John Gibbon. This took place in a pub at Goodrich, Herefordshire and was part of a short tour of South Wales and the borders featuring this one off quartet. This was before my writing days and is therefore undocumented but it’s likely that the band also featured bassist Erika Lyons and pianist Phil Mead. Gibbon used to organise similar tours on a regular basis with guest soloists coming up from London to spend a week gigging in the Welsh Marches. They all seemed to love it. Other illustrious visitors included saxophonists Ray Warleigh, Danny Moss and Duncan Lamont and trumpeter Dick Pearce.
Returning now to the 2019 edition of Still Waters which features Lowther, Clarvis, Green, Hurt and pianist Barry Green, the latter a highly capable replacement for Pete Saberton who sadly passed away in 2012”.
Back to tonight’s show which saw the unavailable Clarvis replaced by Jon Scott, who has been the occupant of the drum chair for several of the dates on the current tour. Tonight he made an excellent contribution to the success of the music.
This evening’s performance represented my first visit to the Arena for a Jazz at Wolverhampton production for over two years. The strand was founded by the dynamic Alison Vermee following her departure from the Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire where she had developed a hugely successful jazz programme that saw such international stars of the music as Bobo Stenson, Tord Gustavsen, Fred Hersch, Ralph Towner and Tomasz Stanko visiting this seemingly remote rural location and playing to full houses.
In 2013 Alison moved to the Arena bringing with her a similar momentum as capacity crowds flocked in for sell out performances by the likes of Zoe Rahman (who became the Jazz programme’s patron), Tord Gustavsen, Phronesis, Jean Toussaint and The Impossible Gentlemen.
However when Alison moved to a new job with the Arts Council the energy levels seemed to dissipate with audience numbers starting to fall and with the programme becoming increasingly reliant on emerging musicians rather than established names. In these difficult economic times I suspect that the withdrawal of funding may have been an issue but there’s no doubt that Alison’s dynamism was sadly missed. Following her departure I found myself somewhat ‘out of the loop’ as far as Jazz at Wolverhampton was concerned but as far as I know there was no programme at all in 2018.
2019 has seen an attempt to revive the Jazz at Wolverhampton strand under the chairmanship of Steve Evans. The organisation has already promoted successful events featuring Zoe Rahman and Steve Fishwick at its new HQ at Newhampton Arts Centre in another part of the city. The duo of Kit Downes and Tom Challenger also played there and saxophonist Iain Ballamy and his quartet are due to visit the NAC on June 14th 2019.
Tonight’s return to the Arena was therefore a one off event and only came to my attention courtesy of Trevor Bannister’s review of the Still Waters show at Reading. Despite an earlier performance by the group in Hereford the Wolverhampton show fitted more comfortably with my reviewing schedule, and besides I was pleased to return to the Arena, with its superb Yamaha grand piano and excellent acoustics. It’s a venue that has produced so many memorable jazz performances in recent years.
Unfortunately tonight’s performance was very sparsely attended with only around twenty listeners dotted around the 150 seater auditorium, making it difficult for any kind of real atmosphere to be created. Not, however, that this detracted from the quality of the music. One would expect nothing less than excellence from this stellar group of musicians, particularly as they were largely playing music from the pen of Lowther, a consistently interesting and witty composer, as evidenced both by “I.D.” and “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe”.
Tonight’s show commenced with the title track from the most recent album, a composition that Lowther dedicated to “sceptics everywhere”. Scott introduced the piece at the drums, his mallet rumbles leading into a group statement of the hymn like theme. Solos came from the leader on trumpet followed by Hurt on tenor. Barry Green’s lyrical piano solo segued into Dave’s bass feature as the group switched into piano trio mode with Scott displaying an admirable delicacy with the brushes.
“T.L.” was dedicated to the memory of the late Birmingham based drummer Tony Levin, with whom Lowther once played. Lowther and Hurt’s unison theme statement provided the basis for fluent solos from both men. The latter’s sinuous, richly inventive solo had something of Wayne Shorter about it. Barry Green was also featured at the piano, displaying his customary inventiveness and lightness of touch at the keyboard.
The writing skills of Pete Hurt were also featured. The saxophonist leads his own seventeen piece Jazz Orchestra, the line up including both Lowther and Scott, with whom he released the excellent album “A New Start” in 2016. He has also issued a couple of earlier small group recordings. Hurt’s composition “Capricorn” again emphasised the quality of the blend between his tenor and Lowther’s trumpet, the joint theme statement leading to lucid individual solos from both players. The rapport between Lowther and Hurt is reflected by that of Barry and Dave Green, whose absorbing piano and bass dialogue here served as a welcome reminder that the pair have recorded successfully in a duo format. Following Dave’s melodic bass solo Scott impressed with a neatly constructed drum feature. The horns of Lowther and Hurt then coalesced once more, prior an unexpected piano trio coda.
“Amber” is Lowther’s dedication to Barry Green’s young daughter of the same name. Tonight serving as a feature for the pianist this delightful ballad was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Barry, with the addition of Dave’s languid bass and Scott’s brushed drums then prompting a further passage in trio format. Lowther then soloed on poignant, Harmon muted trumpet, followed by Hurt on tenor and Dave Green on melodic double bass.
The first half concluded with the excellent “Something Else”, a piece inspired by Lowther’s travels to Morocco and the music of the Gnawa people. The trumpeter played with Gnawan musicians at the Rabat Jazz Festival and although he didn’t deliberately set out to write a piece in this vein the memory of the experience, particularly the Gnawans’ use of huge metal castanets (or qraqebs), stayed with him and expressed itself via this composition. Hurt’s unaccompanied tenor sax introduction established a suitably exotic ‘Gnawan’ feel while Scott’s insistent sticks on hi-hat replicated something of the sound of the qraqebs. Lowther took the first solo on trumpet, accompanied only by bass and drums, before handing over for a dialogue between Scott and Barry Green, the pianist standing up to work ‘under the lid’, striking and plucking the strings. Finally Hurt returned to the fray, the sounds of his tenor ushering us into the break.
A shorter second set commenced with the only standard of the night as the quintet presented their interpretation of “Too Young To Go Steady”, written by Jimmy McHugh and with lyrics by Harold Adamson. Lowther stated the theme on trumpet before handing over to Hurt for the first solo. The saxophonist was followed by Barry Green at the piano before Lowther returned to solo at greater length on trumpet, followed by Dave Green at the bass.
Two Lowther compositions from the “I.D.” album completed the performance. The first, “Golovec”, was written in honour of a forest in Slovenia where the composer once walked and was introduced by the sound of Dave Green’s unaccompanied bass. The sound of this, in conjunction with Scott’s mallet rumbles, seemed to capture the spirit of being lost in the depths of the forest. The beautiful folk like theme again featured the rich blend of horns, with Lowther making his only outing of the evening on flugelhorn and also soloing fluently on the instrument. Others to feature included the two Greens on bass and piano.
The evening concluded with “White Dwarf”, an astronomically inspired composition that provided some of the spikiest music of the evening. More loosely structured than anything else heard thus far the piece prompted some fiery interactions including the leader’s trumpet solo with only Scott’s drums for company. Similarly Hurt’s outing on tenor accompanied by Dave Green’s vigorously bowed bass. Barry Green’s solo, accompanied by pizzicato bass and brushed drums was rather more conventional but it was Jon Scott’s drum feature that threatened to steal the show. This was a skilfully controlled solo that expertly ratcheted up the tension, steadily gaining momentum as Scott progressed from brushes to sticks, deploying one of each at the mid point. It elicited the biggest cheer of the night, on an evening when it seemed to fall to me to encourage my fellow audience members in applauding individual solos. As Scott’s solo reached a peak of energy Lowther and Hurt returned to centre stage to lead the final theme restatement.
All in all this was an excellent evening of music making, the only downside being that so few people were there to see it. The Still Waters tour had been supported by the West Midlands Jazz Network and with so many gigs in the immediate geographical area including Hereford, Birmingham, Coventry, Telford and Oswestry perhaps the potential audience had been spread too thinly. Despite the lack of atmosphere the playing and writing couldn’t be faulted and having enjoyed both Still Waters albums so much I was pleased to have made the effort to come out to see and hear the music being performed live.The star rating reflects the quality of the music, rather than the success of the evening as an ‘event’.
My thanks to Sam Fleming, the Marketing Officer at the Arena Theatre, for providing me with my press ticket, it was good to catch up with her again after a lengthy interim. It was also good to meet up with photographer John Watson and I’m grateful to him for granting permission for me to use his striking black and white image of Henry Lowther to illustrate this review.
I was also able to meet with Steve Evans for the first time and I wish him and his colleagues at Jazz at Wolverhampton well as they attempt to restore the series to its former glory at their new home at the Newhampton Arts Centre. I hope to attend the Iain Ballamy event there in due course.
In the meantime there are still two dates to go on the current Still Waters tour, these being;
May 23rd: Leicester – The Musicians Venue & Bar, LE1 2DE
May 24th: Wakefield – Sorts Club Eastmoor, WF1 3RZ