Group Sounds Four & Five
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.