Stride Magazine -


The Music of Mike Osborne Revisited

 I first heard Mike Osborne in 1975 at Southport Arts Centre as part of SOS, the trio he shared with Alan Skidmore and John Surman. I’d gone having heard relatively little of him but it sounded like an interesting gig. And it was interesting hearing a saxophone trio that made use of synthesisers alongside the various saxes and bass clarinet. My memories are vague but I remember him as a ramshackle man in t-shirt and baggy cardigan, just like on his album covers. Either Surman or Skidmore told me where I could find the album. Osborne didn’t speak.

   That gig piqued my interest in him and other Ogun artists and a few weeks after the gig I picked up the eponymous SOS recording. Surman’s use of electronics was intriguing but it was Osborne’s playing on ‘Wherever I Am’ that grabbed my attention. Cascading lines streamed from the alto jostling with Surman’s synthesisers to create a dense collision of sounds. It’s an uneven album but Osborne’s playing on that piece alone is worth catching. It is a unique and distinctive sound.

   It was a while before I saw him again but in the meantime Ogun released the monumental All Night Long, recorded the same year as the SOS album but altogether a different type of trio. Here Osborne teams up with bassist Harry Miller and powerhouse drummer Louis Moholo, his regular trio. The results feature some of the most integrated and inspired small group interactions I’ve ever heard and at the time I was also listening to Ornette’s trio with Izenson and Moffett. Osborne immediately asserts himself with the blistering riff from the title track, Miller answers with attacking bass and soon there is a three way juggernaut of fiery improvisation. You can feel the fire and collective spirit generated by these players who know each other and can respond in a split second to any change in direction. The two sides add up to about 40 minutes and are only part of one set they played. According to Keith Beal’s sleeve notes ‘The trio played three sets equally exciting that night’. Each time I listen to it I am in awe at the intensity of their playing. The levels of energy are astounding as they power forward seamlessly taking in Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, Osborne’s tunes, like ‘Scotch Pearl’ and ‘Country Bounce’ and collective pieces. Even in more ruminative moments there is a sizzling tension created by Moholo behind Osborne’s compact lyricism. Recorded at Willisau, like the first Brotherhood Of Breath release for Ogun, it is a gig I would have donated vital organs to witness.

   Another gig I’m still kicking myself for missing is the appearance at the 1976 Bracknell Festival of the Mike Osborne/Stan Tracey duo. Thankfully the album Tandem captures their set plus a later visit in November of that year. If Osborne in a trio setting could transmute base metals in the cauldron of his invention then his matching with Tracey was equally an act of pure magic. The opening of the set, ‘Ballad Forms’, conveys a note of urgency: listen to this! And you cannot do otherwise, from Tracey’s introductory notes to the final elegiac nod towards Lester Young via Mingus you are assailed by a constant flood of melodic and rhythmic explorations. Tracey’s angular, percussive piano seems to drive Osborne to further heights. Sometimes Osborne will play a bluesy line and Tracey will be pounding behind then out of it will come an uplifting  line of wistful melody. At times Osborne sounds like several saxes as Tracey batters and sustains a barrage of chords alongside him. The range of dynamics is immense here, moving from acerbic vigour to reflection, from harsh dissonance to melancholy. It is one of the most completely satisfying performances from a duo I can remember. As if that weren’t enough there are two more equally exciting pieces on the album.

   I saw Osborne again in 1977 at Eric’s in Liverpool. This time he was with Isipingo, the sextet led by Harry Miller. They played a tight set made up mostly of Miller’s compositions from the album Family Affair and it was good to see/hear Louis Moholo and Mark Charig alongside Ossie. Frank Roberts was in the piano seat that night instead of the advertised Keith Tippett and to my ears something was missing. For proof of this listen to ‘Jumping’ from the Isipingo album. Here Osborne is in full flight as soon as the opening theme is stated and Tippett is with him accenting and dancing around his every move. Their rapport is tangible. There are elements of both the Osborne/Tracey duo and his coruscating trio on this recording but one of the finest moments is when he and Tippett join forces again. He hits and sustains a high note, a clarion call, and Tippett responds with a groundswell of chords that push Osborne to make phenomenal, emotive statements. The music rises and falls as Moholo joins them. It is very reminiscent of sections from the Bracknell concert. All musicians play exceptionally well but Osborne was clearly having an inspired night.

   Mike Osborne’s final recording for Ogun was 1977’s Marcel’s Muse, a studio affair with stalwarts Miller and Charig joined by guitarist Jeff Green and drummer Peter Nykyruj. I thought it might suffer from the absence of Moholo and a pianist, Tippett or Tracey, but Osborne gets proceedings off to a hectic start with Charig chasing him furiously on ‘Molten Lead’. Both men turn in ebullient solos and the rhythm section is solid. Osborne’s strongest performance comes on ‘Where’s Freddy ?’ another tune which gets off to a flying start with alto and cornet joyfully projecting the theme. Then the alto comes forward and takes off on furiously fluid runs sounding as though he will never stop, though he does, just to let Charig loose on an equally exciting flight. Osborne’s momentum is unstoppable and full of barely contained vitality. The album also features the bluesy ‘I Wished I Knew’, a Billy Smith number which cools down the tempo. There is a glimpse of the reflective Osborne playing the tune straight, holding back and letting the melody convey its sense of something lost, something hurting. Superb performances all round. With hindsight it could sound like a swan song but at the time I thought it just another gem from musicians I greatly admired.

   These are just some of my favourite moments from his career. Meanwhile much of Mike Westbrook’s big band works have been made available again so it is possible to hear him again in that context. There was also the release of Outback and Shapes by FMR a couple of years back. And of course, the latest Brotherhood Of Breath cd, a concert from 1973, features a classic Osborne solo and composition. ‘Think Of Something’ has a wonderfully ragged theme before his alto clears a path and, aided by his trio and various punctuations from the rest of the horns, swings with controlled power over the ensemble. One voice among many but a unique and distinctive one, slipping in some of his favourite licks.

   News of him and his present condition is scant but it seems unlikely that he will play again in public. Evan Parker’s interview in Jazz on CD (March ’95) makes clear the reasons. It is a great loss to jazz and makes his recorded output all the more precious.


©Paul Donnelly




Border Crossing, Mike Osborne Trio (OGUN OG300)
All Night Long, The Willisau Concert (OG700)
SOS, Skidmore/Osborne/Surman (OG400)
Tandem, Mike Osborne/Stan Tracey (OG210)
Marcel’s Muse, Mike Osborne Quintet (OG810)
Family Affair, Harry Miller’s Isipingo (OG310)
Procession, Brotherhood Of Breath (OG524)
Travelling Somewhere, ditto (Cuneiform : Rune 152)