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Group Sounds Four & Five

From left: Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson, Henry Lowther, Tom McGuinness, Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann

Tom McGuinness remembers a Sunday night in 1965 when he, Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg visited the Green Man pub on Blackheath Hill to see a modern jazz outfit called Group Sounds Five. He thinks they must have had a motive, because the band’s two horn players — the trumpeter Henry Lowther and the saxophonist Lyn Dobson — soon became members of Manfred Mann, staying until the summer of 1966. After the departure of Mike Vickers, and Tom’s switch from bass back to guitar, they were also joined by Jack Bruce. Tom recalls that Manfred lured Bruce away from John Mayall, who was miffed enough to write a song about the defection: “Double Crossing Time” appeared on the Blues Breakers album.

Group Sounds Five had acquired the habit of rehearsing three times a week, even though they landed on average no more than one gig a month, according to their drummer, Jon Hiseman, and Lowther and Dobson continued with them even after joining the Manfreds. The departure of their pianist, Ken McCarthy, turned them into Group Sounds Four, with Bruce taking over from Ron Rubin on double bass. Both incarnations appear for the first time on record in a new release called Black and White Raga, documenting recordings made by for the BBC Light Programme’s Jazz Club in November 1965 and April 1966, preserved in the extensive personal tape collection of Hiseman, who died in 2018.

This was a remarkably creative time in the London scene, with musicians like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Ginger Baker, Harry Beckett, Danny Thompson, Brian Auger and John McLaughlin switching back and forth between the modern jazz and R&B scenes. Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, George Fame’s Blue Flames, Herbie Goins’s Nightimers and the Graham Bond Organisation welcomed players comfortable with both idioms. Lowther, Dobson and Bruce were able to make a living with Manfred Mann — whose repertoire included tunes like Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack o’ Woe” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” alongside “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Oh No, Not My Baby” — while continuing to pursue their commitment to the sort of avant-garde jazz exemplified by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

The four pieces on the album by Group Sounds Five, with McCarthy on piano and Rubin on bass, most strongly reflect the Coltrane influence. An emphasis on modal structures is evident through “Red Planet” (a Coltrane original also known as “Miles’ Mode”), a hard-bop recasting of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, McCarthy’s driving “Celebrity Stomp” and an extended treatment of Mike Taylor’s complex “Black and White Raga”, based on shifting between the black and white keys of the piano. The brilliant but ill-fated Taylor was an admirer of the group (Hiseman, Rubin and Bruce recorded with him), and gave them this piece, which he never recorded himself; he would have been pleased with this intense and compelling treatment, which maintains its tension and narrative thread through 11 absorbing minutes.

Seven months later, now down to a quartet, the band recorded three tracks: Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, Bruce’s “Snow” and Dobson’s “Straight Away”. These are even more impressive: the confidence has grown, individually and collectively, and there is the feeling that something genuinely original is beginning to emerge. It’s most fully evident in “Snow”, a five-minute tone poem in which the composer’s bowed bass converses with the two horns, eventually joined by Hiseman’s mallets. There’s a distinctly Northern European cast to this piece, reminiscent of the writing of Krzysztof Komeda and Palle Mikkelborg.

It would be hard to overpraise the quality of improvising, particularly on the later tracks. Lowther’s endless flow of ideas and Dobson’s rhythmical fluency and tempered aggression are matched by the response of the bass and drums, Hiseman making a particularly powerful impression with a solo on “Straight Away” as architecturally coherent as it is technically advanced. Had this band been given the chance to make an album, the product would no doubt have stood alongside Joe Harriott’s “Abstract” and Mike Taylor’s “Trio” as an fine example of the forward-looking music being made in London at the time. Thanks to Hiseman’s archival instinct, this rediscovery fills an important gap.

Between these two sessions, on March 18, 1966, the Manfreds found themselves at Abbey Road recording a song called “Pretty Flamingo”. Jack Bruce sang the high harmony and Lyn Dobson played the distinctive flute part on what became the band’s second UK No 1 hit. Those were different times.

* Black and White Raga is out now on the Jazz in Britain label (jazzinbritain.org). The photograph is taken from the cover of Manfred Mann’s 1966 EP Instrumental Asylum, and is the only one I can find featuring all three of Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson and Henry Lowther.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. gpbutlerpc1603 #

    Always loved this Bands Pop Stuff but will try and locate this jazz stuff too.

    January 2, 2021
  2. Tim Adkin #

    Lovely fascinating post Richard. I’ve always found Lyn Dobson a rather intriguing figure – always seemingly on the periphery, whether by accident or design, like a Zelig with chops. He’s there with the likes of Soft Machine and also Keef Hartley plus many others. Bob Downes occupies a similar space.
    Lowther’s 1970 album ‘Child Song’ is lovely and still gets dusted off. Always loved the Manfreds’ instrumentals and the great, if somewhat unwieldy, Chapter 3 incarnation with a horn section to die for!
    Happy New Year

    January 2, 2021
  3. Joachim Kettner #

    Thank you, Richard. Your articles are always interesting! I have a Paul Jones hit single where the fllipside was “Sonny Boy Williamson”. It had Bruce on bass and Jones on harmonica.

    January 2, 2021
  4. Adam Glasser #

    Absolutely and completely fascinating… I’m so grateful and pleased to read this background to musicians that I heard live and whose music I got to know at the much later stage in their lives.
    Though as a 12-year-old in Cape Town I remember being entranced by “Pretty Flamingo” Which played often on springbok radio… And then years later as a teenager to pass Manfred Mann’s ‘Earth Studio’ On the old Kent Road Was always a thrill.

    January 2, 2021
  5. A fascinating account of the rediscovered history of the ‘scene’ in the mid sixties. Thank you Richard!

    January 2, 2021
  6. Colin Harper #

    Fascinating! I bought the album too – those chaps at Jazz in Britain, making such recordings available in collaboration with artists and estates, are doing wonderful things. I will certainly be able to appreciate the album more, if that’s the right term, with all that context. I don’t have the physical version yet – only the advance download. Some of JiB’s releases are necessarily download only, which is fine – but a sleeve note with contextual info can add so much to this kind of release.

    Contrary to myth, Jon Hiseman didn’t quite keep master copies of everything he did for the BBC – but he certainly kept a lot of it. I had the pleasure of being involved in a Colosseum at the BBC 6CD set for Repertoire (released last month), along with Jon’s daughter Ana and the approval of other band members, and perhaps a third of the content came from Jon’s tapes.

    For the Lyn Dobbo buffs, he can be seen/heard here – with Jon Hiseman on drums – in concert with Georgie Fame in Prague, 1967.

    January 2, 2021
  7. GuitarSlinger #

    As for the incredible level of creativity in Jazz/Jazz fusion across the UK back in the day .

    To repeat my previous comments on the subject …

    What in the H-E- double lacrosse sticks happened to it all ? From groups to individual musicians.. along with most of the albums they created .. its like the entire UK Jazz/Jazz fusion scene hit a whiskey glass ceiling … and faded away … into … err … the rain . Never to be heard from or reach those levels ever again . Damn it !

    Cause seriously .. from across the pond … there was some damn good stuff coming out of the UK back then

    January 2, 2021
  8. Marmite Sandwich #

    I remember Jack and various other jazzers (Surman/Heckstall-Smith/Hiseman?) appearing in a studio recorded session on BBC radio in late 1971 or early 1972, with Jack playing electric bass, and often wondered what happened to the tapes of that. I remember at the time it made a big impression on me.

    January 2, 2021
  9. daveheasman #

    Does Henry know it’s been released? He lives 5 doors away from me and I’ll mention it next time I see him.

    January 2, 2021
  10. Tom Hudak #

    On the first night of my first trip to Europe at age 29 in 1989 I went to hear Elton Dean perform with a group at a London pub. That same trip I picked up my first Mike Westbrook CD as well as Jack Bruce’s wonderful Song for a Taylor. Yet another 20 years would pass before I began appreciate the English jazz-rock scene circa 65-80 for what it was: a unique and distinct music scene. Not being a musician myself, I’m hard pressed to say what made it so, but the music that was made certainly seems to have had no boundaries between rock, pop, and jazz both mainstream and experimental — which is to say I have found nearly all of the records from that period extremely engaging. Since my late realization I’ve been snapping up all the records I can. Thanks for pointing out this latest one to me which I’ve now ordered (sorry to have taken a limited edition LP off shore) as well as a copy of Subversion through Jazz.

    January 2, 2021
  11. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks, Richard. I always enjoy your evocative memories of London’s jazz/R&B 60s period.

    Anybody remember Manfred Mann’s Instrumental Assassination EP?

    Still have my 1966 original.

    January 2, 2021
  12. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks, Richard. I always enjoy reading your evocative memories of London’s 60s jazz/R&B period.

    Anyone remember Manfred Mann’s Instrumental Assassination EP? Still have my 1966 original.

    January 2, 2021
  13. daveheasman #

    Totally off-topic and remove if old-hat

    “There was a British journalist, Richard Williams. He left music journalism to write about sports, but he’s back in it now. But at that time, he was writing for The Times and Melody Maker. It was so easy to promote your record then because all you had to do was get into the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker… It was a smaller marketplace. Anyway, Williams had been hired as the head of A&R at Island Records, and he offered the Island Studios to make a demo with the intention of signing me to the label. But shortly after making the recording, Richard was sacked during a change of managing directors. And the thought of losing those recordings was totally unacceptable. So although at the time I was homeless and crashing with a friend, I sent a large bouquet of flowers to the new director with a request for my tapes, which he kindly granted. Some of those pieces are among the second release, Been In The Streets Too Long, on my UK label.”

    Annette Peacock 2017
    https://thequietus.com/articles/21949-annette-peacock-interview-2

    January 2, 2021
  14. Phil Brown #

    I am very wary of rose tinted glasses (especially if I think that am wearing them), but this really did seem to be an unusual period when a substantial number of musicians seems quite happy to move back and forth between genres with some wonderful results. If I remember correctly “Time” from Manfred Mann Chapter III was even used as the theme tune to BBC’s Jazz in Britain or Jazz Today . As for “more rehearsals than gigs” – Made me laugh – I know the feeling !

    January 3, 2021

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