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Posts tagged ‘Henry Lowther’

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.

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.