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Brief Encounters No. 6

Just as I started thinking about the ending of the last project another package arrived in the mail from Joyce at Cuneiform. Changing the slant, expanding the story.

It’s often seen in the curriculum vitae of saxophonists this claim of classical training, as though that legitimizes them, as though European convention was the epitome and jazz somehow less valid. Formal training was, for me, an
afterthought, there were a couple of famous tenor saxophonists – who shall remain nameless for the sake of modesty – that passed on various titbits, but it was not until Paul Brody [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Brodie] became
my teacher, that anything close to formalism appears. Coincidently this is happening around 1974, when this first recording of Skidmore – Osborne – Surman [SOS] takes place.

Studying with Mister Brody didn’t really help. His idea of teaching being to put you in a small box-like practice cubicle with the scales and exercises from his own publication – “A Student’s Guide to the Saxophone” (pages 1 through 4) and check you out at the end of the half-hour. Cash preferred. Not a hint of “Il Flauto Traverso” – the wonderful duets composed by Jean Baptiste Loeillet de Gant, and certainly nothing as interesting as Sigurd Raschèr’s “158 Saxophone Exercises”.

He didn’t last long as my teacher, too many character discrepancies, especially his determination to make the saxophone imitate the sound of a classical violin, oblivious to the amazing history of the instrument, especially in jazz. I’d made him cassette tapes of Ornette and Art Pepper, whom he found distasteful, out-of-tune, his preference being Paul Desmond, and then only for his sweet tone.

A couple of latent trivial thoughts come to mind: firstly that he owned the only known F alto made by Adolphe Sax himself and secondly that he has included me in his curriculum vitae. One never knows does one?

Perhaps in reflection he did set me off on the path of investigation, his own saxophone quartet too sweet by half, leading me to recordings of the Sigurd Raschèr Quartet [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzJNxkDZnp8] which had been formed in 1969.

Anthony Braxton assembled a saxophone quartet for one recording in 1974 [Arista AL 4032], a group that was completed by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett. In 1977 the World Saxophone Quartet recorded [Point of No Return- Moers Music] and 1978 ROVA [Cinema Rovaté – Metalanguage].

Over the years there has been a number of personal experiences with saxophone groups. In the latter half of the seventies a group of us in Toronto created Air Raid, a quartet with me, Maury Coles, John Oswald and Nobuo Kubota which over the ensuing years expanded its format to include more horns and a rhythm section. April 1983 a saxophone quintet formed in London [England] by Maury Coles included me, Elton Dean, Harrison Smith and John Tank. 1976 saw Dutch baritone saxophonist Ad Peijnenburg creating the Four Winds, which he would also expand into a larger configuration, inviting me in 1986 to join his Six Winds [Six Winds – BVHaast Records 064 & Elephants Can Dance – Sackville 3041] alongside one of my avant garde heroes – John Tchicai.

Such a rich and disparate history.


John Surman • Mike Osborne • Alan Skidmore

SOS -1
Spring has arrived
, time again for me to wander the forest trails marvelling the blossoming of another year, the Sennheiser ear buds firmly implanted, all three CDs shuffle-repeat, familiarizing myself with the scope of John Surman, Mike Osborne and Alan Skidmore’s musical prowess. Not, as one might imagine, just a saxophone trio, as we find Surman bewitched with synthesizers, sequencers and electric keyboards, early experiments that he has carried into his ECM recordings, and Skidmore, it turns out, a capable percussionist. From my own point of view, though, it is the saxophone trio that holds my attention.

The earliest recording of S.O.S., which has recently surfaced as one half of a two-CD set [Cuneiform Records Rune 360/361] comes 38 years after my first experience of them, the long-playing record Ogun OG400 [CD OGCD 019] from 1975 listened to how-many-times over those years, hundreds at least, some compositions so familiar that my memory whistles along, especially “Country Dance”, the only composition that reappears in total on “Looking For The Next One”. There are other familiars finding their way into the 2-CD program – “Ist” and “Goliath” becoming part of the twenty-five minute long “Suite”, “Where’s Junior” finding itself added to “Up There” and numerous other fragments identifying the repertoire of the trio.

The music tends toward an Englishness, sometimes heraldic, evidence of madrigals, jigs, reels, of choral music and a certain folkiness, described perhaps as lunatic-fringe Celtic. Although all three are southern  born [Devon, Hereford, London], not a touch of Irish or Scottish among them.

Disc Two of “Looking For The Next One” finds the palette of the trio expanded. In concert at the Balver Höhle Jazz Festival on July 27th, 1974, the earliest of the recordings, one can hear three pieces ranging in length from fifteen to twenty-five minutes, allowing the privilege of entering their world of spontaneous creation. A special treat!

Enough words. Check them out for yourself:

“Country Dance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhrP9OT7FU4
“Where’s Junior” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOJ1tTCN9o

The Birmingham Jazz Concert

Mike Osborne Trio with Harry Miller & Tony Levin

Mike Osborne Trio
Ghosts inhabit my daily journey
– as aging demands. I’ve already chosen the eulogy to be read at my farewell party, an extract from George Bernard Shaw’s “A Splendid Torch”: I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

Not that I’m ready to leave just yet, still so much to do, but these three compatriots, Mike Osborne, Harry Miller and Tony Levin have already passed into the spirit world, leaving behind a spectacular legacy.

There are concerts captured for posterity on CD – Thelonious Monk’s big band, December 30th, 1963 at Philharmonic Hall in New York City; that evening two years later in London – August 29th, 1965 with Ornette Coleman’s trio at Fairfield Hall, music that lingers forever, classics would not be an exaggeration. If only I could have been there, hands clapping, a tiny inclusion. And again I am not there, but once again we are all fortunate that the concert of the “Mike Osborne Trio – The Birmingham Jazz Concert” [Cadillac Records SGCD010/011] from the Warwick Room of the Grand Hotel in Birmingham on November 7th, 1976, one and three quarter hours of melodic improvised music, is here for us to rejoice in.

In the liner notes, George West – the recordist of this event and founder of Birmingham Jazz – writes: The musicians gave me permission to record the concert as a souvenir on my Maxwell C180 tape and Yamaha recorder, and it’s subsequently remained unplayed in my files until unearthed in 2009: amazingly the tape had not deteriorated in any way and gives a very high quality documentation of an outstanding evening’s music making.

Immigrants have brought into the English vocabulary rhythmic dialects, their language continuing the emotions and structure of sound shape, passed on through integration for everyone who listens. East Indian, West Indian, South African all mixing in with the rounds and traditional dances, the accents, brilliant colours, even the smell and taste of what in my youth was considered exotic food.

I’ve written about Mike Osborne previously, made him an extension of this multi-cultural British reality, a voice apart from America, encounters touched by his own and borrowed traditions, been enamoured by his unwavering creativity, his music urgent even at slower tempos.

He has been compared by other writers to Jackie McLean, and it is simple to make such a mistake; certainly the stridency that was a character of McLean’s work is in evidence, but Ossie (as he is affectionately known) comes from another culture, one inspired by other alto saxophonists: the earlier investigations of Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott; alongside his colleague, South African Dudu Pukwana; Trevor Watts and Elton Dean, and if there is an American in the mix it is Ornette Coleman with brief flashes of Albert Ayler.

The tunes have a familiarity about them, although it is only the two renditions of Harry Miller’s “Awakening Spirit” and Ossie’s “Ken’s Tune” that have appeared previously, found on “Mike Osborne Trio – Border Crossing” [Ogun OGCD 015]. Another fantastic recording with South African Louis Moholo the drummer. If it is recognizable compositions that please you, help establish a sensibility among all this energy, then the handful of standards: Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary”, Rollins’ “Alfie”, Monk’s “Nutty” and the traditional air “Don’t Stop The Carnival” will suffice.

I had not intended to get on this English jag, back into familiar streets, but this is my favourite music, an integral part of my own history, some being friends from a time ago, so it is true that there is a certain prejudice, memories reinvigorated. So much so that it becomes impossible to escape the sentiment bubbling up, leading me on to repeated listening of Isipingo, the cadre of bassist Harry Miller, which also features the alto saxophone of Mike Osborne. Specifically to three CDs, all recommended, all from the seventies:

Harry Miller – Different Times, Different Places
[Ogun OGCD 041] 1973 & 1976
Harry Miller’s Isipingo – Which Way Now [Cuneiform Rune 233] 1975
Harry Miller’s Isipingo – Full Steam Ahead [Reel RR012] 1975 & 1976

To search out more of Mike Osborne’s music check out his partial discography at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Osborne#Select_discography