Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 1-2

Barry Witherden By

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Part 1 | Part 2

Some three-and-a-half minutes into Release, the Deram recording of Mike Westbrook's seminal suite mixing Swing classics with Westbrook originals, after a scorching solo by John Surman on "The Few," an alto saxophone cadenza emerged from a free ensemble passage: the tone was penetrating, incisive, severe, the phrasing intense, passionate and ascetic, adding up to a remarkable, unsentimental romanticism. The alto player's following reading of the theme of "Lover Man" evoked the most affecting of previous versions, particularly those by Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, but added even more layers of longing, hope and romanticism. He had already impressed with his solo on "Images," part of Celebration, the Westbrook band's debut recording, but his work on Release and its successor, Marching Song, took his profile to a different level... Mike Osborne had well and truly arrived.

"Ossie" was one of the finest, and undoubtedly the most passionate and urgent of saxophonists Britain ever produced. Indeed, he stands comparison with the best players anywhere. On 19th September 1997, just nine days short of his 66th birthday, he died from lung cancer, but psychiatric problems (he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1974) had prevented him playing in public since 1982. That year he returned to his home-town, Hereford, where he lived in care until his death. His friend Terry Evans kept him up-to-date on what was going on in the outside world, and helped support him with practicing: eventually Ossie was provided with a room in the care home where he could play, away from the residential part where his neighbours did not appreciate jazz. Some of his former colleagues visited him from time to time and even jammed with him occasionally, but there was never any real prospect of his returning to public performance. His recorded legacy covered just 15 years, and although he was moderately well-represented on disc during his lifetime a number of valuable un-released sessions have come to light since his death. I'll be examining his work with other people's bands and with his own remarkable groups in part 2 of this article, but for the moment I'll confine myself to a potted biography and some general comments on his music.

Michael Evans Osborne was born in Hereford on 28th September 1941. He went to school at Wycliffe College in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, then, at 18, moved to London and the Guildhall School of Music. He had played violin in his school orchestra, but studied clarinet, piano and harmony at the Guildhall. He occasionally used the clarinet in ensemble work in later years but his primary instrument was always the alto once he had turned professional. In the spring of 1963, after sitting in with them a couple of times, he was invited to become a permanent member of the Mike Westbrook band when it reformed after moving from Plymouth to London. At that time he was one of only two full-time musicians in the band, joining an impressive reed section which included Surman. Westbrook says "He was way ahead of the rest of us in those days, the hippest person we'd ever met in terms of music and life-style. He was a major force in the band throughout the 60s. That period included the sextet's residency at Ronnie Scott's Old Place, the Little Theatre Club, a quartet and the first broadcasts and recordings"

From the mid-60s to the mid-70s Osborne cropped up in all sorts of bands and demonstrated that, although his sound had become harder and his style more challenging, he could make his mark in almost any context. He left Westbrook in 1972 to follow a solo career, but continued to play in several bands and was to be found in those led by Michael Gibbs, John Warren, Humphrey Lyttelton, Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler amongst others. In particular he worked well with the expatriate South African musicians who settled in London in the early 60s and brought new ideas to the local jazz scene throughout the next two decades. Osborne's most long-lived group, his trio, featured two of these: the bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Osborne's first recording under his own name, Outback (1970) included them and pianist and composer Chris McGregor. Osborne was one of the early members of McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath and he also played with McGregor, Miller and Moholo in Isipingo, a sextet that also included cornetist Marc Charig.

One of the most interesting and, certainly in the early-70s, most surprising bands Osborne was involved with was SOS, a trio comprising him, Surman and tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore. Although ostensibly a saxophone trio, the sound was augmented by Surman's subtle and creative use of synthesisers, whilst Skidmore sometimes played drums. In 1974 S.O.S appeared at the Paris Opéra, playing their own music for a Carolyn Carson ballet, Sablier Prison. I was during that period that Osborne began to show signs of mental distress, and on his return to England received the diagnosis of schizophrenia. He spent some time in hospital, and after that he only occasionally played in public. In 1982 he went back to Hereford, where he was often hospitalised and, finally, lived in care. He never played in public again.

Anyone who has had a relative or friend affected by dementia or some other condition that slowly but steadily steals their personality will know the grief of long drawn-out goodbyes. For Osborne's fans, the 25 years between his retirement from public performance and his death seemed very like that experience. We are all too familiar with the premature deaths of great artists, and the fruitless pondering over the "what ifs"—what if Charlie Parker had lived longer?; what would he have made of fusion or free jazz?; would John Coltrane have pursued the more reflective path of Expression rather than the apparent ferocity of Meditations. And so on. No doubt aficionados of all arts do this sort of thing—but in this instance the "what ifs" applied to someone still alive but unable to perform or, indeed, latterly not always able to recognise and communicate with visitors.
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