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Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 2-2


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The passion and conviction of Osborne's playing was so intense that it almost always came across undiminished on recordings, whether they originated in a pub, club or concert-hall gig, or in a studio as part of a formal session. Some of his most exciting work was captured in front of an audience at the BBC's Maida Vale premises, a converted swimming-pool in West London, but it is pretty certain that the Corporation wiped the tapes years ago. Only privately-taped airshots of variable sound quality survive as testament to the work of Osborne in that context. ...and for that matter, many other fine bands engaged for BBC jazz sessions.

The first recordings under Osborne's name to see the light of public day had been intended as a trio session but, with characteristic artistic generosity, Osborne decided to showcase Harry Beckett and Chris McGregor on Outback (1970). The title piece is a brooding Osborne original. Beckett's solo is one of the best he ever recorded, contrasting dramatically but appositely with Osborne's careering entry. "So It Is," another composition by Osborne, prompts him to produce an anxiously restless solo. Moholo's contributions are exemplary.

However, the earliest known recordings by Osborne date back to 9th June 1966, but they remained un-issued until Cuneiform included them on their 2015 release, Dawn. Featuring a quartet completed by John Surman (soprano and baritone saxophones), Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums), this session is of especial interest because the tunes were predominantly compositions by established American figures ...there was Pharoah Sanders's "Seven By Seven," Carla Bley's "And Now The Queen" and Booker Little's "Aggression." The session was completed with Osborne's own piece, "An Idea." The rather melancholic "And Now The Queen" is one of the most beautiful compositions I know, and I love Paul Bley's recordings of it, but the arrangement on this session doesn't quite work. The rest of the set, however, is beguiling stuff, with the musicians' early promise already maturing into achievement. Surman (this was only his second recorded session) plays especially well on "An Idea" but it is Osborne who dominates.

I've started at the very beginning (a practice recommended by Julie Andrews) but am not going to follow a purely chronological scheme, nor attempt to be fully comprehensive. Rather, I will spotlight what I consider to be Osborne's most indispensable recordings (which hardly narrows the field much) including those which illustrate some development in his work, with his own and others' small groups. (I will leave his work with large ensembles until some future time.) Some readers will feel that I have left out their most-admired Osborne performances. If it's any consolation, it means I'll be leaving out some of my favourites too.

The other performances on Dawn were cut in August and December 1970. They are by what would become Osborne's definitive context, the trio with the magnificent Miller and Moholo, and predate its first official recordings, which were released by Ogun as Border Crossing and All Night Long. If I may steal a line from Blade Runner), they burn like attack ships off the shoulder of Orion. There was already a hard, sharp quality to Osborne's tone ("sharp" in all its senses) yet his playing brimmed with emotion. In common with two of his greatest influences, Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, he could unspool long, seamless streams of melodic invention that managed to combine structural freedom with a song-like quality. The August session included two numbers that remained staples in the trio's repertoire: Osborne's own Scotch Pearl and Herbie Hancock's Jack Rabbit, which is such a perfect fit that it could have been composed by Osborne.

Although the trio had existed since 1969 Border Crossing was its first recording, although its three members had, as already mentioned, cut those long-overlooked 1966 tracks as part of a quartet. Taped live at a Peanuts Club session on 28th September 1974 (Osborne's 33rd birthday) it is especially interesting for sleeve-notes by Osborne himself and for illustrating, on side 2 of the original LP, the way the group segued from one tune to another "changing mood and direction as we feel the music dictates," as Osborne explains, weaving several tunes into one unit. Side one consisted of four separate tracks and introduced "Ken's Tune," which was dedicated to the Peanuts organiser Ken May and which became a staple of the trio's repertoire, and "Ist," which would later emerge as a regular part of the repertoire of S.O.S., the innovative all-saxophonist trio.

All Night Long was re-issued in 2008 as part of a series of events celebrating Osborne's life and work. It chronicled a concert by the trio at Willisau, Switzerland, on 3th April 1975. Most of the music had originally been released in 1976, but the time-limits of LPs had meant that there had to be some omissions. The trio had played three sets, and the LP had been taken from two sections of one of those. The CD restored "Waltz," a 7-minute section which featured an impressive solo by Miller, and a second, shorter but ferocious version of "Scotch Pearl. The CD also added another previously unreleased performance, "Now and Then, Here and Now," recorded somewhere in Europe probably around the same time.

If you want to hear quintessential Osborne trio performances you can't do much better than these: lengthy improvisations, mainly at white-knuckle tempi, where classic songs, original tunes and impromptu lines are tumbled together in a dazzling melee, stepping up the temperature, momentum and complexity until you wonder how they will be able to end without crashing. It's therefore all the more startling when Osborne dramatically disrupts a fearsome, careering solo by quoting "When I Fall In Love" with real tenderness. It evokes his days with Westbrook, when he could turn the band's mood on a sixpence.

The opening track, "All Night Long" leading into "Rivers," demonstrates the trio's practice of starting with a climax and working up from there. In the CD re-mastering Miller is well to the fore, showing even more clearly what a remarkable player he was: powerfully propulsive, never neglecting the bass's harmonic function, inexhaustibly stitching strong melodic lines to Osborne's white-hot cascades of notes. Moholo (for some years now he is properly referred to as Moholo-Moholo, an expansion of his name that he adopted as being more authentic) envelops them in crisp, agile, insistent tattoos which he insinuates into every interstice.

The trio, now with Tony Levin on drums, appeared in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) on 7th November 1976. The recording made of this concert eventually surfaced in a two CD package on Cadillac in 2012 under the self-explanatory title of The Birmingham Jazz Concert. If ever faced with the hideous prospect of being able to keep only one Osborne recording, this would be my choice. He often sounded driven, and there were times when a pile-up seemed inevitable, but here he is definitely in the driving seat himself, in complete control. The concert perfectly illustrates what Osborne described in the notes to Border Crossing quoted above: continuous sets seamlessly weaving several tunes (some improvised, some pre-composed by the trio members, some by other hands) into an inexorably unfolding coherent whole. This concert featured some of the trio's most "mainstream" playing, yet the conventions are wrung out to create exceptionally exhilarating, imaginative, sometimes challenging, often joyous music which never seems to look back nor rest on clichés or spare the gas. Miller plays superbly throughout, contributing some gorgeous solos as well as driving, propulsive patterns behind the alto solos. Levin, too, is on fine form, paying imaginative attention to sound variety as well as pulse and momentum.

CD1 starts with the jaunty "Ossie's Opener," leading into "More Mike" in which we have the rare opportunity to hear how well he could play the blues. Osborne then transforms the closing theme statement into Coltrane's "Cousin Mary," which features especially exciting, oceanic playing by Levin. Miller's keening "Awakening Spirit" lowers the temperature somewhat, then Levin's dancing solo leads into "Alfie," the theme Sonny Rollins wrote for the film of that name. At one point Osborne tightens his alto sound so much it sounds like a soprano. "Journey's End/All Night Long" sets Osborne off into freer territory again. "Almost Home Kathy" decks the quasi-Irish ballad "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" with hints of the Caribbean, and features beguiling playing by each trio member. CD2 opens with Thelonious Monk's "Nutty." One of the unusual pleasures of this concert is hearing the trio tackle jazz standards, which they didn't do very often. They bring out the more relaxed and playful side of Osborne's improvising, which only a few of his own pieces (most notably "Ken's Tune" and "Ist") tended to do. The next track, "One for George," can be added to that list of happy Osborne originals. The theme, which has something of the feel of a nursery rhyme (perhaps the influence of Ornette Coleman?) references, of all things, the Westminster chimes. There follows a glorious performance of "Ken's Tune," then a second, much extended version of "Awakening Spirit," this time travelling, in and out of tempo, through several changes of mood. "Don't Stop the Carnival" (a traditional tune mainly associated with Sonny Rollins) follows, with Miller and Levin imparting a kind of "second line" feel to the proceedings as Osborne capers jubilantly at the head of the parade. The gig ends with an untitled improvisation which, while increasing the edginess, doesn't entirely lose the almost celebratory tenor of the rest of the set.

On 31st May 1977 he again recorded for Ogun under his own name, this time with a quintet which retained Miller on bass, but had Peter Nykyruj on drums and added Mark Charig on trumpet and Jeff Green on guitar. The inclusion of a chording instrument was something of a surprise, but Green fits in well, prodding staccato chords appositely into wild solos and unruly ensembles, and contributing some fleet and interesting, if relatively conventional solos. On "Molten Lead" Osborne's sound recalls Ornette more than usual, and the ensemble evokes Coleman's Free Jazz and John Coltrane's Ascension. Although one can't be sure of how much is improvised and how much is written, sections of "Sea Mist" seems to be pre-arranged (in a way that, quite properly, supports rather than substitutes for improvisation) and one of the climaxes features some remarkable high-register work from the alto. I always enjoyed Charig's work with Keith Tippett and Soft Machine, and he is superb on "Where's Freddy," at times channelling Don Cherry but mostly Freddie Hubbard ... not the dedicatee of this tune as far as I know, although the next track, "I Wished I Knew," had been featured on Hubbard's Goin' Up album. It demonstrates that each of these musicians is as adept in a more bop-orientated approach as in the freer jazz of most of the other work. It concludes with a splendid solo coda by the leader. This album, titled Marcel's Muse, might well be the best place for someone to start investigating Osborne's work under his own name, given its range. It's available, at the time of writing, on an Ogun CD that also includes Border Crossing.

From 1979 until his retirement Osborne led a quartet with Holdsworth as front-line partner. Force of Nature included performances from two concerts by this group, one in Koln in October, 1980, the other in London in April 1981. Osborne's playing was variable during this period, but on these sessions he is close to the top of his game, overflowing with invention, in complete control of his technique, still displaying the thematic ingenuity of Sonny Rollins, the exuberant melodic zest of Ornette Coleman and the naked emotion of Jackie McLean. Holdsworth's contributions are bright, fluent and stimulating, whilst Mattos and Brian Abrahams (Koln) and Paul Bridge and Tony Marsh (London) play so well that you hardly miss long-time associates Miller and Moholo-Moholo —-which is very high praise. These recordings did not see the light of day until 2008, when they were issued by Reel Recordings.

As well as leading his own groups, Osborne was also a partner in an outstanding duo. Stan Tracey was one of Britain's most accomplished and most adventurous jazz musicians, whose work was infused with the spirits of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. He was an outstanding composer and was for some years the house-pianist at Ronnie Scott's legendary Soho jazz club, backing some of the finest visiting soloists from the USA and elsewhere. A generation older than Osborne, by the mid-1970s he was so dispirited at the neglect of jazz generally and his music in particular that he decided to retire from performing in public altogether. Osborne sat in with his trio at a benefit for Bobby Wellins and Tracey's pleasure in music was re-kindled by the altoist's playing. After a couple of impromptu sessions the two began to work together regularly under the name Tandem. That was the kind of inspiring player Osborne was: his own intensity and passion reached out and affected everyone who heard him.

In June 1974 a concert at the Wigmore Hall (a London venue with exceptional acoustics for classical chamber music, which it is most commonly associated with) produced an LP, Stan Tracey Alone, comprising a 42-minute solo piano improvisation. The other half of the concert, a duet between Osborne and Tracey, had to wait until 2015 to be issued, when it formed part of a 2-disc set on Cadillac. However, two LPs by the pair did come out in the 70s: Original , recorded in April 1972, and Live at the Bracknell Festival from July and November 1976. (The November track, "Back to Berks" was not actually part of the festival but was taped at the Bracknell venue ... hence the title.)

Tracey said that he been "cautious" about playing this freer form of music, but soon realised that he could retain his own character. And he did. The concert represented on Original had opened with a 26-minute solo bass set by Miller. Osborne and Tracey's succeeding set lasted around 50 minutes and Osborne said at the time that none of it had been written or otherwise pre-prepared. Kicking off from a fanfare-like figure by Osborne, the improvisation covers a lot of ground even in the opening couple of minutes, fragmented jostling giving way to extended saxophone lines and cavernous chords, driving ostinati and hard-edged melodic motifs from the piano. With the kind of music presented in these three sessions, continuously developing, kaleidoscopic improvisations, it's difficult to describe without attempting a blow-by-blow account. Suffice to say that they chronicle two master musicians utterly absorbed in their element, transmuting moods, motifs, timbres, tunes, harmonies and rhythms, interweaving their ideas in a seamless and cohesive impromptu conversation where, even if imagination seems like it might flag, new inspiration erupts to the surface.

Although he worked successfully in a number of contexts and configurations, Osborne always seemed to find the sax-bass-drums trio especially congenial. Apart from his own trio he was notably a member of the one led by drummer, educator and facilitator John Stevens and completed by the might Paul Rogers on bass. At the Plough '79 was recorded in March of that year at a well-known South London pub but it waited several years to be issued on an FMR CD. An expanded version is now available on the Swedish Ayler Records label, with a 23-minute track title "MO Recapitulations." It's another session where we get a relatively rare glimpse of Osborne's approach to "standards": in this instance, Ray Noble's "Cherokee" and George Gershwin's "Summertime," the latter getting a rather menacing, down-home reading, and ends with some mind-boggling high harmonics from the alto. Although the venue regularly hosted jazz and improv sessions, curated by Stevens, very few people were there to listen to the music, and the bands had to make themselves heard against the endless talk of the drinkers ... actually, a fairly normal challenge at most British music clubs and pubs. Despite this and the medium-fi sound, this is an album worth seeking out. Osborne again shows his blues chops (on "Plough Story") and his Ornette-like facility for using simple sing-song tunes as a springboard for driving, complex improvisations ("Last Restart"). Indeed, he seems to have been going through a phase when Coleman's influence was particularly evident ... his "Carousel" seems to be channelling Ornette's early 60s trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett much of the time, though Osborne's own stylistic voice comes through strongly, too, winding up with "Nearly Home Kathy."

He pays tribute to another of his musical heroes by including "Blue Rondo," an exciting tune by Jackie McLean which appeared on his superb 1963 Blue Note album One Step Beyond. This session also illustrates his penchant for throwing in quotes from various sources, especially on "Cherokee." (I once wrote that Osborne had the thematic ingenuity of Sonny Rollins, the melodic exuberance zest of Ornette Coleman and the naked emotion of Jackie McLean whilst sounding utterly individual and personal. I'm happy to stick by that.) "Blue Rondo" is given a more loping, initially leisurely, slightly Latin treatment than did its composer and, as well as quoting Charlie Parker, Osborne keeps transforming the theme into "That Old Devil Moon."

As indicated in part 1 of this article, Osborne had a close musical relationship with John Surman, and it's time to mention some of their work together. They had played alongside each other in the Westbrook band, and several groups of varying size, from quartet to octet, which they often co-led. In August 1968 Osborne took part in the sessions which formed side 1 of Surman's LP as leader, issued by Deram. These involved members of Russ Henderson's calypso band and, for that reason, were generally received unenthusiastically by the more purist/snobbish critics and fans. In fact, they contained some fine, fluid work by all concerned. Although the saxophonists slip into straight jazz time here and there, the tracks are dominated by a strong Caribbean dance flavour, and it is a pleasure to hear Osborne (and Surman) in this uncharacteristically relaxed and light-hearted context. The next Surman album including Osborne,How Many Clouds Can You See? (1970) was a more earnest proposition, but still included much exhilarating music. The line-ups on the album ranged from a duo to a twelve-piece, with Osborne featured on "Galata Bridge" and " Premonition."

One of their most notable collaborations was in a somewhat different trio to Osborne's usual outfit. This was S.O.S. ... as mentioned in part 1 of this article, probably the first all saxophonist, if not purely all saxophone, group. The same configuration had recorded a track called "Bouquet Garni" which came out on a mid-price compilation, Jazz In Britain:'68-'69 in 1972. Just two minutes 40 seconds long, its elegant counterpoint soon gives way to dense, jostling collective improvisation, then airily circling figures. Not a major work, but of value as the genesis of S.O.S. (The same LP also included the three saxophonists as part of an octet playing Surman's "Shepherd's Oak," a gorgeous track seemingly inspired/influenced by Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage.")

S.O.S. proper was formed in April 1973, and didn't appear live in the UK until April 1974. Most of their gigs were in Europe (it was quite customary then for British musicians, neglected at home, to work and even live mainly in Europe, where they were properly appreciated ... it was during a visit to Paris in June 1974 that Osborne's condition came to a head: see part 1 of this article) and they only released one, self-titled, album at the time, recorded in January (the electronics) and February (everything else) 1975. Along with a couple of BBC radio broadcasts, it gave a good impression of the range of the group's work, though their few live gigs were even more expansive. It was not until 2013 that other sessions recorded in 1974 and 1975 saw the light of day, thanks to US independent label Cuneiform, so often the saviour of musically-valuable unissued British jazz and fusion of the 70s. Looking For the Next One is a two-CD set, with Tony Levin guesting on drums on two tracks. I'd been fortunate to see them live three times in 1975 (on the second occasion Elton Dean substituted for Osborne) and one of those gigs is represented here. The performances on both discs easily equal and sometimes surpass other sessions. Often ferocious, always brilliantly conceived, adventurous and executed with stunning power and precision, repertoire staples like "Country Dance" share the bill with rarer pieces, including Rashied Ali's "Rashied."

Turning now to a session by a medium-sized group, which also took some years to surface. In February 1972 Osborne fronted a sextet comprising Surman (soprano and baritone), Skidmore (tenor), Moholo-Moholo and a formidable double double-bass section of Miller and Earl Freeman. 22 years later these recordings were finally issued on the FMR label as Shapes. The title track is a two-part, twenty-minute piece ... again, Coltrane's Ascension seems to have been a major inspiration on this and the other pieces ... and the album is completed by "Straight Jack" (a relatively conventional ensemble but the solos are wild and free) and "Double It," which kicks off with an alto, bass and drums prelude. As the trio becomes more agitated the other horns gradually fade in, interweaving free lines until they coalesce into a written theme statement, producing a nice fat sound underpinned by Surman's baritone, then Ossie is off and running, followed by burning solos from Skidmore and Surman.

Another group Osborne often participated in was Miller's Isipingo. Their Ogun album, Family Affair was re-issued as part of a 2-CD package alongside Miller's remarkable solo album, Children At Play. Less intense than their live performances, which sometimes bordered on the just plain terrifying, this nonetheless shows Osborne mixing it robustly with alumni of the bands of Westbrook, McGregor and Keith Tippett.

A good place to end is with a couple of sessions that have recently emerged on a bonus disc with the long-awaited CD re-issue of Westbrook's Marching Song. As well as a sextet track there are two performances from a quartet led by Westbrook, consisting of Osborne, Miller and that excellent drummer, Alan Jackson. These feature two of my favourite Westbrook compositions, "When Young" and "But It Must Get Better And It Will Get Better." These tracks date from June 1970.

Westbrook's opening passage sometimes has a romantic feel to it, slightly acrid harmonies and all. Osborne sidles in after around 2 minutes 35 seconds with a relatively sparse and bleak yet soulful and searingly emotional line. At times it evokes images of deserted rain-swept streets from some forgotten film noir., the sax wandering in and out of tempo as the protagonist walks between pools of lamplight. This episode proves to be the prologue of an exciting, formidably inventive improvisation (eight-and-a-half minutes in all) developing into a hard-bop-flavoured solo. This eventually gives way to Miller, who finally sets up a riff that leads into the previously-unstated theme of "When Young." ..." Get Better ... begins with an insistent ostinato doubled by sax and bass, over which Westbrook floats the melancholic but beautiful theme. In due course Osborne peels off for his solo. This beguiling tune inspires possibly the most lyrical and graceful solo he committed to record.

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