Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 2-2

Barry Witherden By

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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 Marc 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.
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