Group Sounds Four & Five – Black & White Raga
(Jazz In Britain. CD review by John Bungey)
There’s a tune here from 1966 written by Jack Bruce, the late and legendary bassist, that for all his journeys through blues-rock, fusion and classical, sounds unlike anything he is famous for.
Snow is a striking five-minute dialogue between double bass and horns that has never been heard on record before. With the reflective air of north European tone poetry, it’s closer to Edward Vesala or Jan Garbarek than Sunshine of Your Love. If ECM had existed, producer Manfred Eicher would surely have plonked Bruce in a remote Nordic studio to see if permafrost and pine forests could spark a whole album of this pensive chamber style. It would, of course, have been a very different future to power-trioing round the American rock circuit shredding a Gibson EB3 with Cream.
Snow‘s brooding atmosphere may not be typical of this intriguing release but does represent the quality of playing on two vintage BBC sessions led by trumpeter Henry Lowther and tenor saxophonist Lyn Dobson. The band Group Sounds Five also includes bassist Ron Rubin, pianist Ken McCarthy and Jon Hiseman on drums. They were taped by the BBC in November 1965. Seven months later, for Group Sounds Four, McCarthy and Rubin had gone and Bruce was in. The recordings, assumed lost, were rediscovered in the archive of Hiseman who died in 2018. Both sets document free-ish, forward-looking music influenced by (but not enslaved to) Ornette Coleman and modal John Coltrane. As Duncan Heining observes in the sleeve notes, there were then no jazz schools to teach you how to play just records and your peers. Lowther and Dobson are powerful frontmen, fast, fluent, constantly inventive, powered by Hiseman’s sensitive and flexible drumming. The first set includes Coltrane’s Red Planet (Miles’ Mode), a hard bop take on Night and Day and culminates in the sharp-edged and intricate Black & White Raga by the composer-pianist Mike Taylor, a great lost talent of the Sixties. Set two, which includes Bruce’s Snow and a potent Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise, reveals an increasingly confident band brimming with urgency and ideas. Dobson’s piece Straight Away includes a masterly drum solo from Hiseman that prefigures his roof-raising displays with his fusion band Colosseum (in the days before clumsier rock drummers turned the extended solo into a universal cue to get the drinks in).
In the rather thinly documented arena of mid-Sixties modern British jazz a Group Sounds album would surely have been a fine thing. But these were busy men with rent to pay (and, anyway, this was an age when you had to wait for an invitation to record). Bruce had left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and was playing with chart popsters Manfred Mann. In 1966 Bruce sang harmony on the band’s No 1 hit Pretty Flamingo while Dobson played flute. Lowther was also hired by Mann – not to mention Johnny Dankworth, Graham Collier and Mayall in that era.
Group Sounds Four was apparently one of those bands that spent much more time rehearsing than performing to paying audiences. For those gigs, jazz musicians often had to look towards R’n’B, pop and “commercial” music. All of which may sound pretty familiar to players half a century on.
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