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.