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Mike Osborne: Force Of Nature - Part 2-2

Barry Witherden By

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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."


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