Henry Lowther at the Vortex
The trumpeter and occasional bandleader Henry Lowther turned 80 a couple of weeks ago, and last night he brought his quintet, Still Waters, to the Vortex for a birthday celebration. It was the first gig I’d attended since seeing Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall in March of last year — and when I mentioned to Ferry that I was going to see Lowther, he remembered immediately that Henry had played the muted obligato behind the opening verse of “These Foolish Things”, the title track from Bryan’s first solo album, back in 1973.
That’s Henry for you, a quiet and understated but ubiquitous presence on the British music scene for five and a half decades. You might have heard him in the bands of Gil Evans, George Russell, Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier, John Dankworth, Mike Gibbs, Stan Tracey, Kenny Wheeler or Colin Towns, with Barry Guy and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with Manfred Mann, on Talk Talk’s albums, on John Mayall’s Bare Wires, on Richard and Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset, Elton John’s A Single Man and countless others.
I first met him in 1969, on a plane to Germany, where he was touring with his regular employer of the time, the drummer Keef Hartley. He told me about the recent experience of playing with the band at the Woodstock Festival, where they had appeared on the Saturday afternoon, between John Sebastian and the Incredible String Band. A few months later he asked me to write a sleeve note for his first album, Child Song, released on the Deram label and now a collectors’ item.
The Vortex on Saturday night, with its reduced socially-distanced attendance, wasn’t exactly Woodstock, but Still Waters — Pete Hurt on tenor, Dave Green on bass, Paul Clarvis on drums and Alcyona Mick depping for the regular pianist, Barry Green — produced a set of lovely music. Henry’s compositions are like his improvising, characterised by an innate lyricism, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to hear a live performance of “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe”, the beguiling title track from his most recent album. Throughout the set the trumpet solos had that typical blend of beautiful tone, song-like phrases and surprising twists. The piano solos also caught the ear, Mick deploying a variety of resources, from silvery single-note lines to beautifully formed chordal inventions, as she took every chance to add a sense of elegant drama.
As we applauded Henry Lowther’s music, all you could think was what an adornment this modest but brilliant and much cherished man has been to the British jazz scene, adhering to the highest standards while maintaining the most open of minds, his work as a player and a teacher inspiring generations of younger musicians. Many happy returns to him.
* Henry Lowther’s Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe was released in 2018 on the Village Life label.
Great tribute to a wonderful musician
Thank you Richard. You summed up
how I feel about Henry. Humble and
Brilliant musician who always brings
joy in his playing and arranging.
Obbligato/obligato – either spelling is correct, I think.
Alcyona Mick is great, isn’t she? I saw her play with Henry Lowther (and Chris Biscoe) at the Karamel in Wood Green a couple of weeks ago, playing a selection of Monk tunes, and she was superb. Her duo album with Tori Freestone, ‘Criss Cross’, is highly recommended.
Glad you enjoyed your return to the Vortex, Richard. Top tip – the wonderful Josephine Davies group, Satori, play there on Thursday; not to be missed.
Nice piece Richard thankyou – but who took the photo of Henry L and co? I can’t see a credit.All best wishesSeÃ¡n Kelly
It was me, hence the poor quality…
A great and well deserved tribute to a great musician and beautiful human being.
Lovely piece Richard about a fine musician. ‘Child Song’ still sounds good 50 years on – as does much of the Keef Hartley stuff – at least as long as the great Miller Anderson was still in the ranks. Still have fond memories (from 30 or so years ago) of the late Peter Clayton being rendered virtually speechless on Radio 2 by an in session take of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by an early version of Still Waters.
That sounds wonderful. I wonder if it still exists somewhere? Maybe Henry has a copy.
On looking at Henry’s (fairly limited) solo discography it’s in fact the closing track on Still Waters’ debut album (from 1997) ‘ID’.
He also made a very fetching ‘Corporal’ on the sleeve pic to Michael Garrick’s ‘Home Stretch Blues’! He played pretty well on it too
Lovely group Henry had in the 70s with Phil Lee,Trevor Tompkins and the ubiquitous and magnificent Dave Green
A wonderful fellow and fabulous musician. Happy birthday, Henry! I wasn’t around at the time (b.1968), but in retrospect Keef Hartley’s band seemed to occupy a similar space to Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum – a very British sort of ‘brass rock’ or horn-textured combination of drawings from the wells of jazz and rock, before anyone had created any fusion templates. Each act occasionally performed gigs and recorded radio sessions/concerts with ‘big band’ ensembles – Hartley expanding his regular group with extra brass as the ‘Keef Hartley Little Big Band’ and Colosseum combining with the New Jazz Orchestra. It’s funny how Hartley’s band seems a largely uncelebrated entity these days while Colosseum’s legacy / interest in archive releases seems to endure.
Yes, an inventive and lyrical player. I remember a great gig at a pub in Camden Town with Jim Mullen on guitar and, unbelievably, an audience of literally half a dozen people. Back in the early days with Hartley and Mayall he was also playing violin, but without the usual overdriven, jazz-rock stylings.
Henry Lowther first came to my attention as part of the ensemble on Keef Hartley’s Halfbreed when first released. That record, along with Colosseum’s debut, left an indelible impression on me. I’d love to hear our host’s views. Anyhow thanks again, Richard, for such a stimulating and informative blog. It continues to be greatly anticipated and appreciated.
Thanks, Paul. Glad you enjoy it. RW
Very well said, Richard. Listening to the exquisite music on “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe”, it is a pity that Henry has not recorded more albums. The intriguing illustration on the front cover of the album, by David Alderslade, is worth a mention.