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Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 1-2

Barry Witherden By

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His involvement with the Tracey tribute was especially poignant as he had helped the pianist when, in the mid-70s, he became so despairing of the music scene and the neglect of jazz that he determined to retire from performance altogether. However, after playing a couple of sessions with Osborne, his pleasure in the music was re-kindled, and the two worked together as a duo under the name Tandem. Some of their superb work was captured on Original(on the Cadillac label) and Tandem (Ogun), recorded in 1972 and 1976 respectively. More recently (2015), Cadillac has issued a 45-minute improvisation from the duo, recorded in 1974. More on these, and most of the other recordings I have referred to, in the next instalment of this article.

After the news of his retirement it was difficult to come to terms with the thought that this unique saxophone voice was effectively silenced. His sound was hard yet emotional, his articulation incisive yet never clinically over-precise, his solos evidence of a mind brimming over with ideas, some (one might speculate with the benefit of hindsight) unbidden. He always played with passion and conviction, but from the mid-70s there was an increasingly urgent, often driven, quality, which may have been at least partly due to his psychiatric condition. In the notes to Force of Nature (Reel Recordings) Dave Holdsworth refers to this quality as "almost destructive" and reflects "The demands he made on other musicians were not for the faint-hearted." The impetus of his improvisations could be scary: like a mountain-goat descending a scree-covered slope, it was often only momentum that warded off a disastrous fall. Westbrook has observed, "A deeply sensitive man, he was prey to danger as the balance between the 'real' world and the world of music swung one way or the other. Certainly drugs and alcohol became essential in sustaining the dream of life as an undending 'blow' in which the musician drives himself with furious intensity. ...but at the root, he fell victim to the nightmares that threaten the sanity of any truly great artist who gives himself to his art without keeping anything in reserve. Others come back from the abyss. Mike crossed over ...For his delight in, and sheer zest for playing jazz there is no one to take his place."

Although influenced by Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman (he also admired Joe Harriott and Joe Henderson) Osborne was part of a generation of players who no longer looked to the States for legitimation, and over the years some of his contemporaries would forge distinctly European styles, yet it was the example of black American players like Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and late Coltrane that first inspired them to break free from the hard bop orthodoxies and adopt a more linear approach. Unlike the Americans, many of whom regarded the "new thing" as a weapon against the political and social establishment, most British musicians were attracted purely by the power and structural freedom of the music. Osborne also worked frequently with the South African expatriates based in London from the early-60s, and seemed to have a special affinity with them: many players schooled in the mainstream of modern jazz seemed to be consciously battling the conventions, but Osborne and South Africans like Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza, though no less technically adept than their colleagues, seemed to adopt a more instinctive, visceral approach.

For several years Osborne seemed to be everywhere, not least notable being those regular sessions with his trio at Peanuts. He was less likely to be found in the studio, and a large proportion of his recordings, official and otherwise, were made at gigs, with results that were, as far as sound-quality goes, only just acceptable, let alone ideal. The power of the music, however, marginalised audiophile concerns. He was voted best alto player in the annual Melody Maker poll every year from 1969 to 1973, against such tough competition from the likes of the great Pukwana and Elton Dean.

In the next part of this article I will be looking at Osborne's recordings, some of which have only come to light or been issued since his death.

I am very grateful to Mike Westbrook, Dave Holdsworth, Evan Parker and Barry Guy for giving me their reminiscences of Mike Osborne.

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