Mike Osborne
  • Courtesy of Cuneiform Records
  • Mike Osborne

A number of factors explain why the remarkable British saxophonist Mike Osborne isn’t better know in the US— various illnesses, including schizophrenia and lung cancer (which eventually killed him in 2007), as well as the fact that he never worked in any meaningful capacity with American players during his peak years in the 60s and 70s. He stepped away from music for good in 1982, but over the preceding half-decade he struggled to maintain a career. His obscurity (and, naturally, his fate) is tragic, as he was one of the UK’s most fiery and driving players. He was a key figure working with many of the country’s most important musicians: Mike Westbrook, Chris McGregor, Harry Beckett, John Surman, and, in the bands Osborne led himself, Louis Moholo, Harry Miller, and Alan Skidmore, among others.

In recent years the superb Cuneiform label has been digging into the archives of British free jazz with releases from McGregor, Miller, Surman, Lol Coxhill, Graham Collier, and Mike Gibbs. A couple of years ago the imprint released Looking for the Next One, a dazzling album by Osborne’s pioneering reed trio with Skidmore and Surman. Now the label has just released the fantastic Dawn, which collects music from three Osborne-led sessions from 1966 and 1970—only one of the ten tracks has been previously issued—that captures his early sound: a fusion of the the sharp-edged tone of Jackie McLean with the ebullient melodic thrust of Ornette Coleman. Oddly, the four earliest tracks—cut with a quartet featuring Miller, Surman (on baritone and soprano), and drummer Alan Jackson—are sequenced at the end of the CD, showcasing the players in a slightly more conventional postbop mode compared with what they went on to do soon afterwards. In fact, only one of the four cuts from that session is an original: Osborne’s high-flying “An Idea,” which you can hear below. On the other three the group tackle themes by Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders, and Booker Little.

The rest of the CD consists of six tracks made by Osborne’s powerful trio with Miller and Moholo—the earliest work by a group that released a pair of terrific albums in 1974 and 1976. Even at this stage in the game, the trio had found a furious energy: Miller played manic, knotty lines, stretching out the harmonic shapes for the leader’s fleet improvisations, while Moholo juggled swing and free time without ever losing a beat. This rhythm section provided a crucial platform for Osborne’s feverish extrapolations—his lines never falter, surging forward with an imperturbable push. The sheer energy of the alto player’s biting tone is matched by a love of melody, as his improvisations never surrender a joyous tunefulness, regardless of how bruising his accents and asides or how fast his tempos are. Osborne was staunchly modern, but his ability to deal with up-tempo material reveals his inherent love for bebop. Too often archival titles seem like items that help us flesh out the musical picture of somebody, filling in cracks between one time period or another, but Dawn feels fully formed and essential—it deserves as much consideration as any new title from 2015, and it’s absolutely one of the best things I’ve heard thus far this year.

Today’s playlist:

Lama, Oneiros (Clean Feed)
John Zorn, Filmworks XXII: The Last Supper (Tzadik)
Elena Mendoza, Niebla (Szenen)/Fe de Erratas/Gramática de lo Indecible (Wergo)
Various artists, Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul From Miami, Florida 1967-1974 (Soul Jazz)
Monomono, The Dawn of Awareness (Tummy Touch/Soundway)