Mike Osborne Trio & Quintet

Border crossing & Marcel’s Muse

Joe Harriott Quintet

Swings High


By Ken Waxman

January 17, 2005

All during the 1960s and 1970s, a group of forward-thinking British improvisers was working on different strategies to move their music past what was then considered modern jazz. Some, like guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker, emphasized their distance from jazz to create irregularly pulsed so-called Free Improvisation.

Others, who didn’t want as radical a break from the tradition, evolved a free bop style that put the advances of American innovators like Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane into a rapidly paced framework. Years later, the advances of non-representational practitioners like Parker are better remembered than the experiments of the modifiers. Of course it helps that many of the free musicians — and their Continental colleagues — are still alive and playing impressively today.

Two of the modifiers aren’t as lucky, but as these two reissued CDs demonstrate, the others’ less radical solution was valid as well.

Jamaican-born, London-based alto saxophonists Joe Harriott (1928-1972) had in the mid-1960s created his own adaptation of freeform music analogous to Coleman’s advances. In reality a more conventional player than Coleman — his Yank parallel would probably be Eric Dolphy — 1967’s Swings High was his final quintet disc and is closer to Horace Silver’s style than Coleman’s. Among his sidemen is the clangorous Phil Seamen (1926-1972), who ProgRockers may know as the second drummer in Ginger Baker’s gigantic Airforce, but who was in reality one of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished boppers.

Border Crossing & Marcel’s Muse is another matter. A doubling up of two LPs by alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, most of the tracks feature the saxman playing in wildly inventive form, helped immeasurably by the supple bass work of South African-born Harry Miller (1941-1983), who died in an auto accident. Unfortunately Osborne, whose bone fides included membership in advanced big bands led by Chris McGregor, Mike Westbrook and Mike Gibbs as well as leadership of combos with other not-quite Free Music saxists like John Surman and Alan Skidmore, never reached his full potential. Mental illness forced him to retire from playing in the early 1980s.

That was in the future, when the first seven tunes of the reissue, which made up the original Border Crossing LP, were cut in 1974. With a knife-sharp tone and a speed that allowed him to dart from theme to theme and pile on the sounds without repeating himself or tiring, Osborne is in top form. Even when he tries on slightly slower tempos, it’s as if he’s a pacing jaguar, biding his time to pounce on the notes.

Throughout, he’s aided not only by the unfussy bass work of Miller, who was also comfortable backing other ferocious saxists like Peter Brötzmann and Dudu Pukwana, but also by the determined drumming of Louis Moholo. Moholo, another South African, has been at the forefront of advanced British jazz from his membership in the Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath around when the Osborne date was cut, all the way up to recent gigs with Parker and pianist Keith Tippett.

Back to Osborne. By the early 1970s, the saxist had soldered his initial Jackie McLean influence with an acceptance of Coleman’s offbeat polytonality. That meant that while his solos were still as fiery as McLean’s, his note placement and solo construction took elements from iconoclastic Coleman all the way up to the Dancing In Your Head LP. If you listen closely, in fact, you can hear an approximation of a quote from that tune at the end of “1st”.

That tune also shows Osborne trying to play something at ballad tempo, backed by Moholo’s subtle bell shaking and Miller’s spiccato bass lines, but the saxman reverts to racetrack tempo within 90 seconds. Using exposed bone-like split tones and extended squeaks in his solo, Osborne’s fervor is then abated by Miller’s double stopping and strummed patterns. Like Charlie Haden or David Izenzon with Coleman, the bassist is the perfect foil for the saxist.

Self-effacing, Miller demonstrates aplomb on his own “Awakening Spirit” which could be a show tune, but one played at double speed and featuring bull’s eye punctuation from Moholo’s snare shots. Osborne loved repeating notes and phrases at a furious pace, but at the same time on tunes like this one he never lost sight of the melody.

“Animation”, “Riff” and “Border Crossing” that initially made up the LP’s second side, make an almost continuous single tune. Initially the saxist plays licks that are immediately echoed by the bassist, then his flutter-tongued dissonance opens up into honks and altissimo overblowing. Blasting variations on variations and overtones upon overtones in dog-whistle mode, he creates a molten flow of nearly endless overblown grace notes and slurred split tones. In counterpoint, Miller slithers up and down his strings and Moholo hits precise single tones. Before the fade, it appears that Osborne is quoting Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle”. The result is exhilaration all around.

Unfortunately, Marcel’s Muse doesn’t reach this height. Recorded thee years later, when jazz was in one of its periodic troughs of unpopularity, Miller and Osborne are joined by a new cast of characters: Mark Charig on trumpet, Jeff Green on guitar and Peter Nykyruj on drums.

No Moholo, Nykyruj does his best, but his beat is rather stolid throughout. Charig, whose first name is usually spelled as ending with a “c”, was in the Brotherhood of Breath as well as the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. But here his half-valve playing seems to meander towards fusion and more conventional jazz. There’s even a point on Osborne’s “Where’s Freddy” where his lip-busting triplet playing makes him sound like a modern Roy Eldridge. Meanwhile, as Osborne hits overtones, Green crams run after run into the tune and appropriating almost all the backing space.

Prettiness plus glib textures predominate more here than on the earlier disc, with the guitarist in full Kenny Burrell mode and the drummer particularly enamored of rhythmic intrusions. Nykyruj does add exotic timbres behind a col legno solo of Miller’s at one point though.

Still, with Sonny Rollins-like descending lines added to his smacks, smears and slurs, Osborne soldiers on, letting loose with glottal-punctuation and irregularly vibrated tones every so often. A cappella, he brings the ballad “I Wished I Knew” — and the CD — to a close with a floating cadenza of passionate pulses, yet the trumpeter and guitarist have to step in afterwards to add the proverbial cherries on top of the perfectly baked cake that is his statement.

This isn’t second-rate music. It’s just not up to the high standard set by the Osborne trio on its half of the disc.

It also has good sound, which is something that sadly can’t be said about Swings High. With a boxy tone that suggests it was recorded in Doug Dobble’s famous London jazz shop rather than merely financed by the shopkeeper, the short (38 minute) CD finds Harriott and company revisiting a hard bop style perfected a dozen years before the 1967 date.

Harriott had been acclaimed for outside discs like Abstract and Free Form at the beginning of the decade, plus a series of Indo-Jazz fusion discs with violinist John Mayer a couple of years earlier. Yet here he functions like a Charlie Parker clone, except on the ballads when a Paul Despond [!] influence surfaces.

Veteran bassist Coleridge Goode, who was on the session, has said that throughout he was worried about Seamen’s deteriorating health and wondered if the drummer could get through the date. He did, but the collection of Art Balky-influenced press rolls and Buddy Rich-like bass drum swagger he plays resembles the floundering of neo-con imitators of the 1990s, not someone who had been a bopper from the beginning.

Like Charig on the second Osborne session, but recording a decade earlier, trumpeter Stu Hamer’s half-valve effects often dissolve into prettiness. Pianist Pat Smythe is fighting a substandard instrument. Comping like a facile Red Garland on most tracks, playing rollicking night-club blues on another and displaying repeating single notes like Count Basie on “Strollin’ South” doesn’t help matters either. One time as well, the recording sonics are so limited that it sounds as if he’s playing vibes. A solid walker, Goode himself is from an earlier tradition, a connection he proves on “Blues in C”, where he hums and bows a solo à la Slam Stewart in a Swing Era combo.

While traces of Harriott’ combative ferociousness occasionally come through on the quicker tempos, considering the majority of solos are confined to short breaks or trading fours and eights, even he can’t escape the bop straightjacket.

Harriot completists may be more enthused by the disc which has been out-of-print for many years. But other CDs give a better idea of his talent.

However, because of those first seven dynamite tracks, Border Crossing & Marcel’s Muse is a must for anyone introduced in the evolution of British music or just first-class jazz.