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REVIEW: Henry Lowther’s Still Waters Quintet at Cambridge Modern Jazz

Still Waters: Henry Lowther (foreground) and Dave Green
iPhone snaps by Sebastian Scotney
Henry Lowther’s Still Waters Quintet
(Cambridge Modern Jazz at the University Centre, Granta Place. 11 April 2019. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

“At times he ventures farther afield […] challenging, even defying, conventional notions of tonality and melodic structure. Vocabularies, syntaxes, and aesthetic conceits that heretofore might have been considered incompatible meld together….”

These are words that have actually been used to describe the playing of another, much younger trumpeter. But listening intently to Henry Lowther‘s playing last night in Cambridge, and contemplating his astonishingly varied career in music, I was thinking that this is exactly what the 77-year-old Leicester-born master trumpeter has been doing for decades. His facility on the instrument, the freshness of his imagination, his capacity to surprise – they are all still there in abundance. Each intake of breath brings the certain knowledge that by the time he takes the next one, he will have confidently taken the listener somewhere completely unexpected. A convincing phrase-shape will have been made, a new idea invited in, a surprise will have been sprung.

For this habitué of recording studios over several decades, there is never a duff take. Every utterance is exactly as it is meant to be. His variety of attack and delay seem limitless. His flugelhorn tone on a tune like Golovec is a thing of beauty. For his soloing on T.L. it was as if Kenny Wheeler was in the room. And that idea brought a maudlin thought with it: Lowther’s precious and wonderful craft, and the level at which he is now playing, won’t necessarily be around forever. We should be treasuring it properly and for as long as we possibly can.

The Still Waters Quintet plays mostly Lowther’s compositions, and the variety of inspiration makes for a balanced, varied and satisfying programme. The band’s two albums, almost 20 years apart, contain tunes inspired by such diverse influences as Moroccan Gnawa, Finnish palindromes and astronomy. For more on this variety, I’d recommend Ian Mann’s incredibly detailed review of the album. Astronomy and humour were to the fore in White Dwarf the most intricate, energetic and punchiest tune in the programme. It was also a reminder of Lowther’s deep involvement in the free improv scene from the ’60s onwards.

By way of total contrast, this gig also had its moments of repose and reflection, particularly in the tune Golovec. Just before the final statement of the tune there was a moment of sheer magic from Dave Green, who has been a stalwart of Still Waters ever since the band started in 1987: total simplicity, space and poise. If it was a “solo”, it certainly wasn’t about either display or swagger, it was about giving the moment what it needed in precisely the right quantities: sound, presence, anchoring, solidity and elegance.

Pete Hurt‘s saxophone playing is an ideal foil for Henry Lowther, and his skill at weaving lines counter-melodist is as good as it gets. Drummer Paul Clarvis never fails to bring life, energy and joyful provocation, particularly in the incongruous yet enlivening reggae backbeat to Too Young to Go Steady. My ear was also taken by the quality of mutual listening. These players have always absorbed the previous player’s solo, and have a way of validating and showing approval for what has gone before. Barry Green at the piano was particularly adept in showing that organic link.

This was just the third gig at Cambridge Modern Jazz’s new venue, their Thursday night gigs having recently moved to the Cambridge University Centre in Granta Place. For those interested in the building’s 1967 brutalism go HERE. The building is just next to the river, the Mill Pond and the punts. Immediately next door is that Cambridge institution which was once known as the Garden House Hotel, to which the words “riot” (1970) and “fire” (1972) were always appended, and which now, rebuilt, hides its turbulent past behind corporate anonymity as “The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cambridge City Centre”). The seats in the University Centre are all comfortable. There was a good-sized and attentive audience last night. And, please, the facts that the drinks prices at the bar are so low and that the house wines are so good had better be kept secret.

L-R: Dave Green, Pete Hurt, Paul Clarvis 
SET LIST (all tunes by Henry Lowther except where stated)

Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe
Capricorn (Pete Hurt)
Something Like

Too Young To Go Steady (McHugh)
Oh, What a Beautiful Morning (Rodgers)
White Dwarf
For Pete (Tribute to Pete Saberton by Pete Hurt)

Categories: Live reviews

1 reply »

  1. Excellent review which really caught the spirit of the evening and the essence of Henry's remarkable playing. This superb band had us in the palm of their collective hand all evening. True jazz masters and a privilege to be there. Interesting historical footnote on the chequered past of the old Garden House Hotel. Those were the days! One point of issue, however. Cambridge Modern Jazz has long laboured under the dubious mantle of being one of Cambridge's best kept secrets … 'nuff said!

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