Disturbing The Silence
MIKE OSBORNE : Border Crossing & Marcel’s Muse (Ogun. OGCD015)
JOHN STEVENS TRIO : Live At The Plough (Ayler Records. AYLCD-007)
The urgent, passionate and inimitable sound of altoist Osborne has been silent now for many years. It is unlikely that we will ever hear it again on the bandstand. So these re-releases are even more valuable, both for those who knew him and for anyone encountering him for the first time.

His work with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo, bassist and drummer par excellence, is crucial to an understanding of how Ossie worked. The two South Africans instinctively knew which way his ‘muse’ would lead him and they were more than merely supporting acts. They drove him, gave him space and ran alongside him as equal partners in the often fierce three-way stretches that allowed Osborne to create his distinctive brand of hard bop and free improvisation.

‘Border Crossing’ is one of two live cds the trio recorded for Ogun, in this case at Peanuts Club where the band had made regular appearances since forming in 1969. The playing is simultaneously intimate and energetic with the altoist constantly searching as both bass and drums nudge and accent at every turn. There is clarity and urgency to tracks such as ‘Ken’s Tune’, where Osborne’s deceptively simple theme is the starting point for lucid and shapely improvisation

On ‘1st’, a tune which also featured on the S.O.S album with Alan Skidmore and John Surman, the trio present a tense and sombre opening with arco bass and atmospherically light percussion. The track then moves to a brisk march tempo and back again several times. Osborne’s soloing is characteristically fluid and fresh but equally exciting is the interplay between bass and drums, so intimately recorded too. A pity it had to be faded.

The last three tracks formed the second side of the old L.P. and feature the band shifting seamlessly between themes. This is closer to how they would appear in concert and is probably the best demonstration of their empathetic approach. At times, as on both ‘Animation’ and ‘Riff’, there is frantic quality to Osborne’s playing, as though he knew he had a limited time to capture what he wanted. But the title track is also a fine example on this recording of him getting close to that elusive moment. Again there is a mixture of the slower, more pensive trio sound, as stated in the tune’s theme, and this develops into a loping, mid-tempo workout where Osborne’s alto is drenched in blues. Of course, it picks up speed and the trio generate the kind of energy and momentum that was such an integral part of their operation.

‘Marcel’s Muse’ was Osborne’s final recording for Ogun in 1977, a studio affair without Moholo but still featuring stalwarts Miller and Mark Charig joined by guitarist Jeff Green and drummer Peter Nykyruj. I thought it might suffer from the absence of Moholo, and to an extent it does. It’s inevitable. 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 joyously projecting the theme. When the alto comes forward and takes off on furiously fluid runs it sounds 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. It is an aspect of his playing that may sometimes be overlooked when he is most often remembered for his full blooded improvisational attack.

I hope at some point Ogun will consider further re-releases of the Osborne catalogue, such as his work with S.O.S. and pianist Stan Tracey. Perhaps most of all everyone should get to hear ‘All Night Long’, the second trio recording and a live tour de force that with joyful ferocity succeeds in testing their limits.

Meanwhile if you want to hear more of his playing in another context there is the somewhat overlooked ‘Live At The Plough’ session recorded in 1979 which finds him in the middle of a different trio. This time it’s led by John Stevens and also features bassist Paul Rogers in what must have been one of his earliest recordings. It is an unedited performance and conveys all the authentic atmosphere of a night in the small side room of a pub, complete with audience buzz and someone (Stevens ?) yelling “Can you get the jukebox turned off please ?”

Thankfully the ‘live ambience’ doesn’t intrude on the music, and in any case I’m sure Osborne alone could cut through any extraneous noises. Kicking off with Jackie McLean tune, ‘Blue Rondo’ the trio set up a lightly swung groove allowing Osborne to develop improvisations that explore the melody in both short controlled lines and more querulous bursts over Stevens’ wonderfully relaxed time keeping. It really is a joy to hear the drummer’s crisp accents under the keening voice of the alto.

As a composer Osborne could produce instantly memorable tunes, often sounding deceptively simple, as in ‘Carrousel’. He opens the track in a declamatory manner stating the theme before spiralling off into some of those allusive and inimitable flights which made his playing immediately recognisable. Again Stevens is busily driving and underpinning him. Rogers unfortunately seems a little buried in the mix, maybe he was off mike, but his playing doesn’t always display the power of later work.

The band also tackle a couple of old warhorses in the shape of ‘Summertime’ and Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’, a tune much favoured for extended jams by the likes of Dexter Gordon. In the trio’s hands it becomes a brisk affair with Ossie laying down the tune before Rogers and Stevens take a bit of the limelight. In this instance it is possible to hear the attack that is so much a feature of the bass player’s technique. When the altoist returns he sounds even fresher, ideas tumbling unstoppably from the horn. A great example of the man in full flow.

This outfit doesn’t seem to have worked together often so it is a superb chance to hear a rare collaboration as well as an opportunity to catch Osborne’s long dormant voice in such an energised setting. A reminder too of what we are missing.

© 2004 Paul Donnelly