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19 A Special Brew
April 2019 Posts
Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
23 April 2019
Trumpet For All Seasons
by Mike Westbrook
Henry Lowther's 'Still Waters' - live at Churston Golf Club, Torbay.
photo: Stan Willis
April 18, 2019
Henry Lowther’s ‘Still Waters”
Churston Golf Club,Torbay
Now in his late seventies, Henry Lowther, along with Dave Holdsworth, is one of one of the very few representatives still around of a generation of trumpet players who lit up the London scene in the 1960s. London then boasted such luminaries as Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett, Mongezi Feza and Ian Carr. Over subsequent decades Henry has always been close to the action. Appearing in contexts ranging from free improvisation to big bands, orchestral music as well as small groups of every description, he has retained his distinctive voice. He has been featured soloist in projects by almost every composer and bandleader you can think of. Happily that includes me, and I still value enormously his contributions to Metropolis, and Citadel/Room 315.
Rarely has Henry been a bandleader himself. Prior to his current album Can't Believe, Won't Believe, his previous recording under his own name was some twenty years ago. It’s as if, after a successful career playing other peoples’ music, he has returned to his first love.
The last fifty years have seen not only an increase in the range of musical references that jazz musicians draw upon, but also an ever wider choice of instrumentation. This is in the best jazz tradition. Many musicians have forsaken the standard repertoire and prefer to write their own material. Nowadays a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums is no longer a pre-requisite of any jazz performance. You are as likely to see an oud on stage as a double bass, a cello instead of a saxophone.
Given the abundance of choice these days it is interesting that Henry chooses a classic Hard Bop line-up for his own band. Also that in his material he employs the time-honoured formula that consists of a theme statement, followed by a stream of solos based on a structure derived from the theme, concluding with a repetition of the theme. Many musicians have become dissatisfied with this format. At its worst it can become simply ‘routine’, formless and self indulgent, a recital of cliches. Like everything else its only as good as the musicians who play it. But Bop and the music that that it spawned remains a tough musical discipline that takes no prisoners. In the right hands it is as vital and relevant as it ever was. For that reason, despite all the experimentation going on around it, the quintet form as employed by Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and countless others, not forgetting Ronnie Scott, has retained its popularity.
The form doesn’t have to be preserved in aspic, however. While some musicians (like their ‘Trad’ counterparts with New Orleans music) are content to reproduce the music of the Hard Bop era as a kind of museum art, others have allowed it to evolve. And bands like Henry’s take it to a high level. Some may dismiss this whole genre as being insuficiently ‘innovative’, as if the search for the new is the only thing that matters. True originality, as Thomas Carlisle observed, lies in sincerity, not novelty. And, I would add, a lot of woodshedding.
A soloist guesting with a local rhythm section has to rely on a fairly restricted repertoire of commonly shared standard tunes. The advantage of a regular group like Henry’s is that they can develop a wider range of material, specifically designed for the players involved. In fact all the material in their current set is original, composed by Henry himself, by Pete Hurt or Barry Green.
The only non-original, the ballad ‘Too Young To Go Steady’ is one I’ve never heard elsewhere in a jazz context. It took Henry’s interpretation to reveal the possibilities. On first hearing, the original compositions all seem to fall into that general ‘post-modal’ category:- bold, arresting themes and broad, simple structures for improvisation. These are not like those once favoured themes derived mostly from the American Song Book, with clearly defined structures re-enforced by the rhythm section. On the Quintet’s material the soloists have a more open playing field. Without too many instructions and signposts in the way, and unnecessarily complicated chord changes to negotiate, they can concentrate on creating long, free and unpredictable lines. This requires a combination of imagination, intelligence and technique - qualities to be heard in spades in the improvisations of Henry and Pete Hurt.
I find the way to listen to this music is to focus on the lines, and not worry about the structure. The structures for the improvisation often don’t bear an obvious relationship to the opening themes, which are anyway unfamiliar. It’s never going to be like listening to soloists taking choruses on ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ with its regular landmarks.
To my ears this is music about music. It holds emotion in check, ‘cool’ if you like. Chet Baker, when once asked what was in this mind when he was soloing replied ‘trying not to repeat myself’. The emotions that may be aroused in the listener are incidental to the artist’s search for perfection of line and form.
To me Henry’s trumpet playing has a ‘classical’ quality, perhaps the legacy of a brass band grounding. His tone is clear, precise and free of mannerisms. He improvises with a composer’s instinct, linking broad melodic lines with passages of dense, chromatic complexity.
It’s a demanding listen. He does not try to charm the listener with well wrought phrases. He has no time for formalities. Here is music for grown-ups, unapologetic, the work of a mature artist, a master. If anything, the constantly inventive search for the perfect marriage of line and tone is even more marked in the playing of Pete Hurt, an improviser steeped in the history of the tenor saxophone post-Coltrane who has a deeply lyrical approach. As those beautiful, sinuous lines unfold and become more and more interwoven one doesn’t want them ever to end.
The Quintet’s performance demonstrates the revolution that has taken place in the role of the drummer in modern jazz. The driving, remorseless time-keeping that we used to rely on has given way to a greater flexibility. Without forsaking their traditional role, drummers are now free to vary their approach in response to what’s going on around them, and so help to shape the performance. John Scott, deputising at short notice for Paul Clarvis, showed this. Full of ideas and with a technique to match, John had never played with the band before. But as Henry said ‘it sounds as if he’s played with us for years’.
The Quintet shows how far the rhythm section has evolved from its purely mechanical role. Now piano, bass and drums, while basically holding the music together, have more creative freedom. Barry Green on keyboard, a fine musician, brings a refreshing attitude to accompaniment. Ready to respond to the needs of the moment, he is willing to listen, hold back and allow space for things to happen. In the context of this group I would have preferred to hear him on piano, rather than keyboard, but then the scarcity of pianos in venues these days is a personal bugbear of mine.
Presiding over everything was the magisterial presence of Dave Green. Like Henry, Dave is an Elder Statesman of the British jazz scene. As ever Dave shows great imagination and total command of his instrument. He provides the depth to these Still Waters. It was a thrill to be in the same room as such beautiful bass playing.
Henry Lowther’s Still Waters at Churston Golf Club was the latest in David Walden’s ambitious programme of Jazz and Contemporary Music in the Torbay area. For information check fougoumusic.com
Henry Lowther's website:
The Still Waters album ‘Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe’ is available on Village Life 171013VL
Mike Westbrook & Henry Lowther
photo: Matthew North