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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.

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