Friday, 21 September 2007


Mike Osborne died this morning, aged 65, following a lengthy battle with cancer and too much else besides. He had not been well for over a quarter of a century; the last time he played publicly was in early 1982, but while he was still here there was always the hope, however hopelessly remote, that he might one day pick up his horn and play again, even though he had little or no recollection of his musical past, his mental collapse having wiped the memory. At his most intense – which was most of the time, but best documented on side two of his 1974 trio album Border Crossing (with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo on bass and drums respectively) – he sounded as though he were playing against the death clock, knowing that he was running out of time, fully aware that every supersonic run he played shortened his lifespan just that little further. Indispensable to every group which he formed or with which he played – Mike Westbrook and John Surman’s various bands, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Harry Miller’s Isipingo, Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Kenny Wheeler’s big band, his own Trio, Quartets and Quintet, his duo with Stan Tracey, Tracey’s shortlived and unrecorded free jazz big band Tentacles, and let’s not forget renegade free-folk singer/songwriter Mike Cooper (three decades before “free folk” became another lifestyle option) – his was maybe the most distinctive voice on alto saxophone ever to come out of Britain, and easily on a par with the international flux of altoists who came to the UK from Jamaica (Joe Harriott, Bertie King), South Africa (Dudu Pukwana) or Australia (Ray Warleigh). Along with peers like Elton Dean and Trevor Watts, Osborne had a sour intensity in his tone and approach, an exceptional emotional canvas.

His song was so long and, in the end, so cruelly curtailed (mostly by himself) that it seems vulgar to extract a “song” from his works, too many of which still languish out of print; but “Love Song No 4” is one of the most distinguished individual recordings to emerge from British jazz in the seventies from Love Songs, an album which, although returned to circulation by unlikely but welcome popular demand, still remains underrated, not least by Westbrook himself. Over Chris Spedding’s careful guitar, Norma Winstone sings, pained but composed, about a collapsed love affair. Soon she is joined by Osborne’s alto; as Winstone moves into abstract scatting, they circle ecstatically and mournfully around and into each other, an early orgasm of a late spring. Eventually the song speeds up and the rest of the horns enter for its second section before dropping back to ballad tempo – Malcolm Griffiths’ trombone meditation over hushed horns predates Dexy’s’ “I’m Just Looking” by a decade – and then George Khan’s harsh, scratchy tenor returns to rush up the tempo again. Finally Winstone is alone – “Saw you yesterday,” she sings at a funereal, out-of-tempo pace, choosing her pronunciations with extreme care – “It wasn’t me you held so tenderly…it wasn’t me who walked away”…as the final “away” shivers out through chambers of compression into the void.

The Osborne/Winstone duet – so controlled, so carefree – defines what was so special about the altoist; roughly equal parts Dolphy, Coleman and Jackie McLean (listen to his solo on Part VII of Westbrook’s Metropolis for an example of how the McLean influence persisted), his passion was uncut, his strength unmodified, his tone commanding but never tyrannical and frequently vulnerable; if his playing on Isipingo’s Family Affair (recorded live at the Battersea Arts Centre at the beginning of 1977) involves a new, more frightening form of intensity, it was because that was the way he felt he was heading – the Brotherhood gradually dissolving into Europe or becoming early casualties, Surman moving into the ECM camp, the old alliances coming to an end – and his solos on “Jumpin’” and “Eli’s Song” nearly defy repeated listening; phenomenal and brilliant, both technically and emotionally, but the fuse rapidly streaking towards the final detonation. That didn’t waste much time in coming. But listen to “Love Song No 4” and find as many of his records as you can to appreciate this most damaged of geniuses. I am currently too numb to approach anything resembling objectivity.