Folk cornet and trumpet maestro
Wednesday 22 March 2006
Howard Evans, brass player, composer, arranger and trade unionist: born Chard, Somerset 29 February 1944; married 1965 Jacqueline Allen (one son, two daughters); died North Cheam, Surrey 17 March 2006.
At the 1982 Cambridge Folk Festival, the virtuoso stringed instrument player David Lindley, famous for his session work with Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt and many others, heard a quintet billed as the Martin Carthy Band. He said later,
When they went on stage, I said, "This is going to be good. Look at the instrumentation." It was the most exciting, original thing I'd heard in 10 years.
The group's real name was Brass Monkey. Their revelatory sound mixed voice, stringed and free-reed ("squeeze-box") instruments, percussion, reed and brass instruments. Since forming in January 1981, Martin Brinsford, Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Howard Evans and Roger Williams had honed their stage act and repertoire.
They had yet to record the head-turning début album Brass Monkey (1983) but their performances were scorching. Their reworking of the incest ballad "The Maid and the Palmer" remains one of the most daring and mesmerising performances ever committed to posterity or perdition. Brass Monkey would make five albums in total, going on to deliver See How It Runs (1986), Sound & Rumour (1998), Going & Staying (2001) and Flame of Fire (2004).
Howard Evans was a trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn maestro, though characteristically he downplayed his considerable achievements, drolly calling himself a jobbing musician. In the late 1970s he had become a regular musician at the National Theatre after getting his foot in the door with the NT's Tales From the Vienna Woods. Productions such as The Plough and the Stars ("One bugle call," he told the folk magazine Albion Sunrise, "and piss off") and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight followed.
It led to an invitation to join Ashley Hutchings's Albion Band in the NT production of Lark Rise. The production frequently used "deps" whereby, say, one saxophonist got another to "deputise" if gigs clashed - a subject that Evans later wrote about for the Musicians' Union magazine MUsician. (Evans joined the Musicians' Union's London headquarters in 1997, where he worked as assistant general secretary for media, combining union activities with performing until he was incapacitated by cancer.)
The guitarist and singer Martin Carthy and the accordionist John Kirkpatrick were amongst the musicians who came and went in the Albion Band as touring and recording schedules allowed. On one occasion in the NT's green room, they approached Evans about touring as a trio. It was a far cry from the regimented life as a theatre or pit musician. He agreed. He overdubbed trumpet for "Jolly Tinker" and "Lovely Joan" on Carthy's Because It's There (1979) and by January 1980 the trio was gigging. They later recorded together on Carthy's Out of the Cut (1982).
Evans had first picked up a brass instrument aged 10 and had eventually graduated to cornet. At the age of 13 he had passed the audition to play with the National Youth Brass Band and left school aged 15. In 1961 he responded to an advert in British Bandsman for experienced cornet players and signed on with the Welsh Guards - his father was Welsh - as a bandsman. During his nine-year hitch, he played on BBC radio programmes such as Music While You Work and Friday Night is Music Night. He switched to trumpet and took lessons from Howard Snell, later the principal trumpeter with the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1965 he married, and parenthood proved an unbeatable motivation to combine earnings and art. Military life behind him, there was work aplenty, with all manner of orchestral sessions and show work. Evans played with the Royal Ballet, the André Previn-era LSO and Welsh Opera, played in Lou Reizner's production of The Who's Tommy and in Hair and did masses of sessions, including with Rick Wakeman and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and for the film blockbuster Star Wars.
Working with the Albion Band brought Evans into contact with a succession of leading figures from the folk scene. However, there was dissension within the ranks. Between November 1980 and the following March, an 11-piece splinter group rehearsed near the NT while working in The Passion. Initially called the First Eleven, it included Evans and Kirkpatrick, both of whom were also performing with Carthy. The group that emerged, a mere septet, was the Home Service, the most powerful electrified folk group since Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.
Again, they produced a sound like nobody else, though their eponymous début in 1984 did not capture their power and majesty. The Mysteries (1985), a spin-off of their NT work, proved little more than a show souvenir. And then they finally produced their masterpiece: Alright Jack (1986). At Evans's suggestion, the Home Service reworked Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, a suite Evans had encountered whilst with the Welsh Guards. He had once done a "concert" with Grainger, he told me:
He was "playing" on a piano roll. We did the Greig Piano Concerto at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. We all sat there and there was a player-piano, as they call them in the States, a pianola, and there was young Perce, tinkling the ivories from the grave.
With Alright Jack, the Home Service delivered their finest hour. After it, they too lost their impetus to create with such vision and it was only with the recent arrival of Bellowhead that the Home Service's baton has been passed on.
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