Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 2-2

Barry Witherden By

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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.

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.
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